At the Airport with Borges

Reading the short stories of Borges produces a sense of vertigo. Borges has a talent for dizzying reversals as he peels back the veneer of everyday reality and revels in things far more mysterious. This vertiginous effect is amplified, I found, when reading Borges in airports and airplanes; spaces which in themselves evoke a feeling of unreality. Air travel is the great time-saver for the global traveler – a 24-hour train journey becomes a 3-hour flight; a month-long voyage by ship becomes a day-long jaunt by plane. And this speed leads to a curious stoppage of time; in the air, with time zones whizzing by, the clock loses its hold, and passengers are in a time out of time. Space, too, begins to lose its meaning: airports all look the same, as do all airplane interiors.

These reflections are likely the product of severe jet-lag, as I sit in Delhi in mid-January, recovering from the two consecutive red-eye flights that brought me back from the other side of the world (Boston, to be precise). My annual Christmas pilgrimage began on December 23, when I flew out from Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International (IGI) Airport, Borges in hand. This being an international flight, I was at IGI’s Terminal 3, the pride and joy of the airport, rolled out just in time for the Commonwealth Games in 2010.

Indira Gandhi would be proud of the latest addition to the airport that bears her name; it fits nicely with her vision of a neatly ordered, bright-surfaced Delhi. During the Emergency, her rallying cry Garibi Hatao was followed perhaps too literally in Delhi, as slums were demolished throughout the city in the name of “beautification,” and the protesting poor were arrested or shot, most infamously at Turkman Gate in Old Delhi. In these “clean-up” efforts, Indira gave free reign to Jagmohan, the then Vice-Chairman of the Delhi Development Authority (he would go on to serve as Lt. Governor of Delhi during the 1982 Asian Games and as Governor of Jammu & Kashmir during times of rising militancy). Jagmohan sought to emulate Baron Haussman, who back in the mid-nineteenth century, had overseen the renovation and modernization of Paris, giving the city wider, more “rational” roads and uprooting many traditionally working-class neighbourhoods that produced troublesome protesters.

The spirit of Indira and Jagmohan finds a contemporary home in IGI’s T3. At the airport, Indira’s outdated socialist leanings have been replaced with the new orthodoxy of private-public partnerships (IGI is managed by a private consortium headed by the GMR Group), but the elite civic pride remains. As with all projects related to the Commonwealth Games, T3 is invariably described as “world-class” in its press materials. The airport’s website welcomes us to a “new” Delhi, clean, technologically advanced and efficient, in a desperate attempt to sweep away any negative stereotypes the world may have about the city. T3 sports vaguely Indian motifs and artwork, but the overall aesthetic goes for a sleek, bland internationalism. Let’s remember India’s glorious cultural heritage, it seems to say, but don’t let it distract you from the gleaming duty-free shops that charge customers in American dollars.

The managers of IGI clearly want it to be a symbol of present-day Delhi, and indeed it is, but perhaps not in the way they intended. T3 is the shining star in the center, but around it lay the ruins and neglect of terminals past. Despite the high security around T3, it is alarmingly easy to wander into the surrounding construction sites and the older, unused terminals such as the nearby Terminal 2, which is temporarily converted into the Hajj Terminal and used by pilgrims to Mecca for two months a year. (Actually, despite all my wanderings and research, I still can’t quite figure out if T2 and the Hajj Terminal are identical or adjacent, since the signage is so confusing and the airport’s press materials – focused on T3 – entirely neglect this matter.)

No motorcycles can ply the roads approaching T3; apparently anyone departing or arriving from this world-class terminal would not deign to be seen on this plebeian mode of transport. However, motorcycles are most welcome in the T2/Hajj section of the airport, reinforcing the class divide between T3 and the rest of the IGI facilities. Local buses also stop at T2/Hajj, while the express buses all stop at T3. And then, of course, there is the Delhi Airport Express, the high-speed Metro service from central Delhi to the airport (arriving, of course, at T3). This is another shining example of public-private partnerships, this one with Reliance in the lead. Services have been suspended since July 2012, after several “technical defects” were found in girders, tracks and tunnels. Of course, Reliance has been keen to shift the blame onto the “public” side of the partnership, the state-owned Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC), even though the regular— non-airport— Metro service, run entirely by DMRC, is doing just fine.

No matter. The local bus is more convenient for me anyhow. On the day of my departure, I approached T3 from the T2 bus stand, its outlines blurred by the winter smog. Arriving passengers streamed out of the T3 building. A Sikh man returning from abroad was greeted with the loud staccato of a dhol and ecstatic dancing. Foreigners and Indians alike looked on with interest; here was the energy of a real cultural performance, creeping up to the sanitized gates of the terminal (although not, of course, allowed inside them).

Once inside T3’s reassuringly global confines, I completed my ritual passage through immigration and security and took a seat near my departure gate. The ubiquitous TVs were playing an English-language news channel. The headlines screamed, “Delhi police fire tear gas at protesters! Water cannons used to disperse crowds protesting against rape!”

But I was not in that Delhi. I was in the cocoon of the “world-class Delhi” – a world without motorcycles, without pilgrims to Mecca, and certainly without those dissidents, who just can’t appreciate how beautiful Delhi is.

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