This week I left Kolkata to spend a week in Bangalore working with the highly acclaimed Bangalore Little Theatre (affectionately known as BLT) where I will catch some of their new plays, accompany them to a rural area where they do theatre education outreach to economically disadvantaged schools, and where I will teach a one-day playwriting workshop to BLT members.
My Indigo Airlines flight was on time, and finally during my flight I got to have one of my much anticipated Indian delicacies, the Indigo Airlines chicken junglee sandwich and a cup of Darjeeling tea. If you haven’t tried one, you haven’t lived. You think I’m kidding.
The trouble began after I landed at KIA (Kempegowda International Airport). I grabbed a luggage trolley (always free in India; a lesson for US airports) and dropped my shoulder bag into the topmost rack of the trolley near the handlebar. My two pieces of checked luggage arrived on the belt in no time. I tossed them onto the trolley and made for the exit while opening the Uber app on my phone.
Along the way I stopped at a small shop in the airport lobby, left my trolley near the shop entrance and took two steps to the counter to buy a bottle of water, all of which took less than 60 seconds. I was soon outside pushing my trolley up and down the sidewalk, past the Subway, the Krispy Kreme, and a host of other colorful eateries that were primarily a mix of South Indian and US cuisines, looking for the blasted Uber pickup spot. I had already requested the car so I needed to hustle.
Only when I reached the Uber stand and started to load my luggage into the car did I realize my shoulder bag was missing. I whipped the trolley around and walk-ran back toward the terminal. Some wiseguy had lifted my bag right off my cart while I was buying water, I fumed. Where am I, Philadelphia?
I flagged down a security guard. “Excuse me, my bag has been stolen.” After the struggle of going through the particulars in English (my broken Bangla is worthless here in the state of Karnataka where the native language is Kannada), he sent me to the airport’s Central Industrial Security Force control center. The CISF is a branch of India’s armed police force and is tasked with guarding industrial and infrastructure sites, including airports.
The uniformed gentlemen were extremely helpful, and truth be told, they seemed a lot more optimistic than me about recovering my bag. I was already grieving for not only the lost bag, which was an inexpensive but beloved souvenir from a Citi-Mart (think K-Mart) store in Kolkata, but also my laptop that I would need for teaching later this week, and my expensive prescription reading glasses that I would also
need for teaching. But worst of all I would be losing parachute-kaku.
You see, the day before I left for India back in September I had tossed “parachute man,” one of my seven-year-old son’s toys, out the 2nd floor window of my Philadelphia apartment, videoed it floating down to the parking lot, and sent it to him as a final goodbye. I also brought the toy with me to Kolkata where I renamed him “parachute-kaku,” (Bangla for parachute uncle), which my son and I got a kick out of.
Parachute-kaku traveled with me everywhere. It became a running gag between my son and me to send him pictures of parachute-kaku at various historic sites, in cafes, sitting next to me in taxis, and posing with friends and family in Kolkata. This man-about-town had been spotted with Swami Vivekananda, been seen pandal-hopping during Durga Puja, gone shopping at the South City Mall, had hung out backstage with stars of Kolkata’s native jatra theatre scene, and even met a Tollywood star. Parachute-kaku was getting me into all of the right places. When he wasn’t hobnobbing, he lived in my shoulder bag…
Forget everything else I had lost. The laptop could be replaced. My glasses could be replaced. Parachute-kaku now had historical provenance. How would I break it to my son that the toy was gone forever? I was admittedly too embarrassed to tell the CISF guys, with their sidearms and berets, that parachute-kaku must be retrieved at all costs, so instead I focused on the laptop. Anyone could understand that.
One of the guards told me they would make some calls and also check the restrooms, and that likely someone who grabbed the bag would steal the contents and dump the empty bag someplace. If I was lucky, I might at least get that bag.
Another officer, Mr. Ravindra Pratap, was more reassuring. “It’s not stolen,” he told me. “People don’t steal bags at this airport.” He struck me as the kind of guy who made sure that kind of thing didn’t happen, at least not on his watch. I told him it was entirely possible that I had left it in a restroom, or on the plane, or that it had even fallen off the cart someplace, but that I really didn’t think so. Nonetheless, if they could check everywhere I’d sincerely appreciate it so that I could get it off my mind, stop wondering, fill out some kind of theft report for my records and complete going through the Five Stages of Grief, starting with Denial and ending with Acceptance. I was still stuck on Bargaining.
They told me to sit tight for another 15 minutes. I was dying to go back inside and retrace my steps myself but this wasn’t allowed. Airport security is tight in India. Once you’re out of the building, you stay out of the building unless you have a ticket for a departing flight. So there was nothing I could do but plop down on my luggage, count my many blessings, and enjoy Bangalore’s balmy weather. I texted my best friend in Kolkata to just to vent and get a sympathetic ear. I pinged my contact at the Bangalore Little Theatre, the actor, Mr. Abhishek Sundaravadanan, to keep him informed about my delay. I let him know I’d need to borrow a laptop in order to show a few Powerpoint slides and film clips when I taught my workshop in a few days. Next, I started looking for laptop sales on amazon.in.
Finally, Officer Pratap came outside and found me to let me know the bad news that they hadn’t found it. He and his colleagues let me know that if I wanted to, I could take the long walk from the terminal to the Airport Police station (a separate branch from the CISF), fill out a report, and then they’d send me back to the terminal with an officer who would sit and watch the airports CCTV footage with me. I weighed this for a few moments. The loss was eating away at my entire day and I still had an hour ride to get into the city before meeting Dr. Vijay Padaki, Convener-Trustee of BLT, later that evening. I had already faced that parachute-kaku was gone.
Still, maybe I’d need some kind of proof later. I wasn’t even sure why but something told me to get a record of the lost bag. So off I trundled toward the police station with my trolley and luggage. One thing I learned on this journey is that the sidewalks in India are not wheelchair friendly, and thus not luggage trolley friendly, so I spent a lot of time backing the cart off of curbs, losing and repositioning my luggage, and then popping wheelies to get the trolley back up onto opposing curbs while avoiding speeding taxis.
Once inside the police station, I waited patiently while the officer in charge handled another complainant. On the wall behind them, I spotted a big sign marked “Rogues Gallery,” to which about two dozen passport-sized photos of bad guys were attached. I wondered what they had all done to make the airport arch-villains’ list. I imagined one of them being the thief who made off with my bag. I wanted to get that guy.
When it was my turn, I sat down casually explained the situation to the officer in charge, an older gentleman with a kind face. He was strictly business, and didn’t seem particularly impressed with my crisis. “But you have the rest of your luggage?”
“Yes, it’s right over there,” I said, pointing to my trolley waiting just outside the door.
“You have your passport?”
“Thankfully,” I said, tapping my shirt pocket.
“You have your money?”
“Yes, thank God,” I said, patting my front pocket.
He stared at me over the top of his reading glasses. I saw where this was headed. Why go through all of this trouble just for a laptop and a pair of glasses? I was too embarrassed to tell him about parachute-kaku, and about the fact that I didn’t want to let down my son, so instead I said, “I understand that it’s gone. I just want to fill out whatever form you have so I can prove it was stolen in case I ever need it back in the US.”
He handed me a blank sheet of paper and a pen and began dictating a letter for me to write down, word for word. They would need this signed letter in order to process my complaint of a lost bag. The day was ticking away but I had come this far, so I proceeded to slowly write as he recited in a thick accent:
To the Commandant,
Subject: Loss of My Bag
“Now write down exactly what happened,” he said. So I began. On 2nd, December, 2018, I arrived in Bangalore on Indigo flight 6E-345 from Kolkata where I work as a Fulbright-Nehru Scholar. The flight arrived at 12:20pm.
At that moment his desk phone rang. An officer sitting next to him picked it up. She said a few things into it in Kannada and then handed it to him. He said a few more things into it, then hung up and looked at me. “They found your bag. The laptop is still inside.” My jaw dropped. By this point I couldn’t help but laugh at the good news, and the irony of the timing. I dispensed with the letter, thanked the police offers profusely for their help and hopped up to go, thinking only of parachute-kaku.
“God has smiled on you because you are a nice man,” said the lead officer.
I pressed my palms together prayerfully and said a final “Namaskar” on my way out. I wheeled my trolley back through the zooming traffic, up and down high curbs to the terminal and the CISF counter. Officer Pratap and the others were all smiling at me as I approached the window. We all started to chuckle. They had found my bag on the floor near the luggage belt. Somehow in grabbing my two checked bags and placing them on the trolley I apparently knocked my shoulder bag into the floor, or perhaps another passenger did it inadvertently and I hadn’t noticed. Who knows?
Most importantly they reunited me with my bag and with You Know Who. He was safe and sound nestled inside right where I had left him.
I told the CISF Officers that in the US I never would have gotten such attention, and that I could imagine a security guard pretending to look for five minutes, then giving me a Lost & Found number to try on my own in hopes the bag turned up. Here, it took a little longer but it’s because they were actually looking, actually contacting custodial staff to ask if they’d seen it, checking with the shopkeeper where I’d bought my water.
They were proud of their jobs, and prouder still, I think, that their bag theft record at KIA remains at zero.