When you miss a flight — because the 6.20 morning flight is pushed back to 12.20 in the afternoon and no one remembers to tell you when that departure time has been changed again to 12.10 — you take the next flight out.
The next flight to Jaipur on my airline was at 5.35 pm. So there I was on Friday at Delhi Airport's Terminal 3 with roughly five hours to murder. Since I was off to the Jaipur Literature Festival, described correctly and cunningly as 'the largest free literary festival on Earth', I thought it would be apt to while away my hours by watching readers in the airport.
With a strange British-accented woman's voice wafting from the public address system, which somehow managed to make 'Vijayawada' sound Arabic, I observed people sitting around in the sprawling main departure lounge. An airport, being essentially a giant waiting room, is conducive to 'time-pass' activities such as reading. When travelling to Europe and places like Britain, one of the first things one notices is the large number of people reading books at airports.
But here at Delhi's T3, an overwhelming number of people were not reading anything at all, text messages included.
I caught only a few reading. A man sprawled on a couch was reading India Rising: Tales From A Changing Nation by Oliver Balch. An elderly British gentleman was reading Max Hastings' Catastrophe: Europe Goes To War, 1914 while, as a perfect counterpoint, his wife was reading Hope in the Age of Despair: The Gospel and the Future of Life On Earth by Jonathan Moo and Robert White.
These airport readers who I was snooping on were White foreigners. What about Indian airport readers? I did find a burqa-clad woman reading a news magazine while her husband kept reading the back cover of The Game Changers: 20 Extraordinary Success Stories Of Entrepreneurs From IIT Kharagpur by Alok Kothari, Rahul Kumar and Yuvnesh Modi. Some seats away, a professorial fellow with a muffler around his neck was reading Bertrand Russell.
I saw another chap clutching on to a copy of Rhonda Byrne's self-help bestseller The Secret, whose very publication seemed to me to go against its title. There were a few people, all foreigners, reading on Kindle. But with e-readers you never get to know what their owners are reading. At which point I realised that it was the airport bookstore I had to visit to observe airport reading habits.
Airport shops work on the principle of luring in a captive bored audience. Eating being the most popular boredom-breaker, restaurants and food courts had their constant supply of customers. But there's the prominent WHSmith outlet, half its large floorspace dedicated to books and magazines — the other half to chocolates, canned drinks and other knick-knacks.
In one of the aisles, I catch a pre-teen boy in a yellow sweater reaching out to touch a copy of Vaibhav Purandare's Sachin Tendulkar: A Definitive Biography. His father nearby was flipping through Devdutt Pattanaik's Sita: An Illustrated Retelling of the Ramayana. I realised that he's Bengali when I heard him loudly say to no one in particular, 'Goynagati onek hoychhey!' (Enough of jewellery!) It turned out that he was addressing his wife who was hovering too long at the bangles and bracelets counter.
At some point, I asked the chap manning the near-empty rows of books whether they have a copy of Amitava Kumar's A Matter of Rats: A Short Biography of Patna. After a finger-blitz on the computer, the man looks up and suggests I buy An Honour of Rats instead. I move on to another aisle where I find two short burly guys flipping through Linda Sontag's Great Sex Techniques, Sensational Sex and Erotic Foreplay. The series, I investigate, has self-helpful photographs. A lady asks a shop assistant if there's any French newspaper. "French? No. We only keep English newspapers," he says with unbridled pride.
I see a man take his time before putting back on the pile How Much Is Enough?: Money and The Good Life by Robert and Edward Skidelsky, the father-son, political economist and philosopher duo. This isn't the book he was looking for. He finally chooses Bejan Daruwala's Your Complete Forecast 2014 instead.
A young American backpacker picks up John Green's The Fault In Our Stars. After he's gone, I take a copy out (I already love the title) and read the first paragraph of this novel: "Late in the winter of my seventeenth year, my mother decided I was depressed, presumably because I rarely left the house, spent quite a lot of time in bed, read the same book over and over, ate infrequently, and devoted quite a bit of my abundant free time thinking about death." It is this book that I read till I reach 'the largest free literary festival on Earth'.
Postscript: I encounter yellow sweater boy again at the cash counter with his mum and sister. He has managed to get his mother to buy him Dog Days: Diary of A Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney. In a quiet act of marital rebellion, the woman has made a last-minute purchase of a pack of bangles along with books for her son and daughter.
Views expressed by the author are personal