Five-thirty pm, inside Bombay airport's arrivals lounge, an expansive, clean, open space with a lofty ceiling and plenty of light. The regular evening landing schedule hasn't begun.
Off to one side, a small group of transit passengers are seated, waiting for their connecting flight to be announced. Apart from them, there isn't a passenger around, the luggage conveyor belts are asleep, and the lounge is hushed and gentle on the senses.
Which is more or less the theme across the terminal building, including the check-in area where you get your luggage screened and collect your boarding passes, the security checked departure lounge, and the clusters of shopping spaces - the whole thing a work in progress over the last two years and a minor work of art.
Back in the empty arrivals lounge, one minute it is still as a summer pond, the next, streams of passengers tumble out of coaches that pull up at the glass door.
The lounge swarms with people - now it looks like a lived in airport. Kids get a ride on luggage trolleys pushed by parents. By the conveyors men and women in airport uniforms have conversations with their two-way radios, high-pitched, staccato bursts of voice mixed with static. To my untrained ears, it's more code than conversation.
Then, among the surge of strange faces headed to the conveyors, I spot an old friend I haven't seen in eight years. He's just landed from Chennai where he's moved. We trade the stories of our lives, and cellphone pictures of family and friends. Then it's time for him to leave. A streamer hung from the ceiling announces, "Welcome to the new gateway of India".
At the café inside departures, there are still a few tables available, and I take one by the window. At the next table, two men, a middle-aged Korean and an Indian fresh out of college. The Korean is showing the younger man pictures of his family on a laptop.
The boy asks him about arranged marriage and the Korean says it never happens in his home country About his toddler son, he says he cries on only two occasions: when he's hungry and when he's sleepy Babies - turns out they're the same anywhere in the world.
The landing of the stairs just above the café has a sweeping view of the departure lounge. Directly below me, as the rest of her group chats, a stewardess is turning beads on a light green rosary.
Either she's the most religious of the group, or she knows something that nobody else does! Outside at check-in, under the swivelling gaze of the cameras above, five girls in their late teens are laughing and chatting as they push their trolleys towards a counter.
This end of check-in smells predominantly of hot corn (from the stand on the side), like your average multiplex food corner. One of the girls is stopped by two of her group who hold her steady while they touch up the kohl in her eyes, letting her go only when they're done. The laughing resumes, and two commandos walk by, AK-47s on their shoulders - one the price of the other, I suppose.
Throughout the terminal, the walls have minimalist black outline drawings of things that convey India and travel - at one place, clocks, at another, suitcases with wheels, a man with a turban and big curly moustache outside the gents restroom, a woman with a large nose-ring signifying ladies.
Another place, a man in classic yoga posture; elsewhere, a woman performing a classical Indian dance - most of this bordered with little spheres and abstract Indian motifs tumbling along in a stream below.
Just before arrivals ends and the city begins, the wall on the left is one large sheet of translucent glass illustrated by a full-length woman, hands joined in greeting. The glass softens the sunlight before letting it in. The centre of the largely white background is the woman, blue sky and white clouds behind her head, and the stream of spheres and motifs down by her feet. Across this, in large, softshaped orange letters, is the word "Namaste".
With its own systems of communications, security, traffic management, waste disposal, restaurants, shopping spaces, newsstands, restrooms, pay phones, public water and conditioned air, the terminal is a microscopic ideal city unto itself - and then you walk into the less than ideal city outside.
A screen of brown uniforms separates checking in passengers from their immediate objective - the departure lounge. Here they can finally put up their feet, chat, laugh, argue, read, eat, sleep, listen to music, call, message, till their flight is announced. An old lady with an airport badge shuffles between the chairs, picking up used newspapers in a pile in her arms and dumping them in a room at the back. These newspapers probably have the shortest life spans in the city.
A dignified, grey-haired gent in a suit, Oriental features, hasn't moved in his chair in two hours. I wonder if he's a mannequin placed there by the airport just to break the monotony of the black leather chairs.
Out of my corner window at the café inside, a flight takes off and lands roughly every two minutes. It begins as a dark blur, a tiny wisp that breaks a cloud. A few seconds later, as it becomes larger, its metal catches the sun. Shimmering as it hovers in the middle distance, it looks extraterrestrial. A few seconds later, it becomes an airplane, a few seconds later, touch down. For a little while, I play it as a sport, eyes squinting into the summer sky to see how early I can spot the little wisp.
Back in departures, outside my café window, a butterfly is lazily bouncing along too close to the ground, as if still hung over from a little too much nectar last night.
Twice as I've passed the guard between arrivals and departures, he's asked to see my security clearance. The third time, he doesn't; the fourth time he's almost in danger of smiling at me. After six hours inside the building, I've become such a naturalised citizen of this space, I feel like Tom Hanks' Viktor Navorski in Steven Spielberg's The Terminal (2004).
Just like home
In arrivals, a mother with a 6-8 year old boy walks from the conveyors back to the glass door that leads out onto the tarmac. She stops at the door (beyond which fresh arrivals are not allowed back outside) and restrains the boy who wants to run out. The guard indulges him and takes him by the hand just outside the glass. The mother warns him, "Hold him tight, he'll run out faster than you can".
In the café, a consultant type is doling out wisdom to a bunch of young, eager-eyed consultants-intraining. A couple in front, on the mini couch with its low glass table, shares a quiet lunch of biryani and paneer with the TV a few feet away . Almost like home. To my right, a German couple speaks German and I don't understand a thing.
Evening now, and in departures, a girl of about seven, pretty pink top with frilly sleeves and off-white lace neck. As my gaze moves randomly a few seats back, there's another one just like her, same clothes and nearly the same face. Twins! Directly below me, a woman is reading the front page of a news paper, story by story, running her forefinger on the words from the first line to the last. Beside her, a conservatively dressed grandmother with family is carefully reading a luxury story on sunglasses and Angelina Jolie.
Outside my café window, a night descends on the tarmac, and a lake of lights is coming to life. At about streetlight height, large, stationary yellow lights illuminate the ground as well as the elbow room available in this cattle pen for airplanes. Down below are hundreds of little blue, yellow and red lights, some fixed on the landing strip, most of them blinking and mobile, riding on the dozens of passenger coaches, baggage trolleys, ground crew vans and airplanes waltzing around. A field lit in fairy lights.
The piano in the café's piped music is playing Strangers in the night. At my table, surrounded by strangers on their way to destinies of their choice, and night enveloping both sides of the glass, it feels like I'm in a movie, and the song seems written for the scene. Another bird has just lifted into the air, its cluster of lights blinking away into the night. Fairy lights on the ground, fairy lights in the sky. It's been a nice evening, time for me to leave.