Fri, 28 Jan 2022

By Suvir SaranNew Delhi [India], December 6 (ANI): Homecoming after six months away in the US, mostly spent in New York City, was an unceremoniously circumspect affair. No large crowds greeted or cheered us. No placards identified us as special; no one whisked us past crowds heading to customs, then to baggage claim and to bulletproof cars with dark glass. No such fanfare for us; Mom and I were ordinary, everyday citizens of India, doing what countless do, returning home.

Having had shoulder, triceps and biceps repair and reconstruction surgery in September, I was a good candidate to be indulged with a business-class seat on United's direct flight from Newark to New Delhi. Mom and I both needed wheelchairs and yet there were none available at curbside. Despite having premier status with United, I had to walk, and walk, and walk some more, from one counter manned by a couple of United employees to another, and then to one more, to be sent back to the one I had just left, to then be sent farther away to another, all to get wheelchairs organized for me and Mom, who was still in the car. As I walked, I wondered about people who are worse off than I am, who are unable to walk at all. Without curbside porters and wheelchair assistants, how were they able to even enter the terminal, much less navigate the labyrinth of counters and peevish, unsmiling employees to find someone to help them?After having walked the better part of a mile looking for help, I was told by a wheelchair operator ferrying a passenger that I first needed to check in. I asked if I could have porter assistance for luggage and was told I needed to get my own luggage inside and deal with it independently. All of this infuriated and embarrassed me for my adoptive nation and the airline I'd been loyal to for a decade. Luckily for me, I had someone to help--another luxury that many don't have. My nephew Karun and my sister Seema loaded our bags onto carts and brought them in. Off I went to check us in, which was easy breezy, and then once more--I hoped--back to the wheelchair counter.

There, American exceptionalism was everything but exceptional and corporate greed was laid bare by the staff's lack of loyalty to their employer, their complete indifference to their customers, and the words exchanged between them as they at a snail's pace got us into wheelchairs and on our way. The supervisor made it clear that they were understaffed and underpaid, and thus they had little interest in how we passengers felt or how late we would be by the time they got their act together.

As luck would have it, security check-in was overwhelmed, which it seems is always the case in airports across the US. Grumpy employees, arrogant attitudes, and aggression seem part and parcel of being an employee of Homeland Security assigned to check and screen passengers. After being threatened with arrest, I was forced to remove my shoulder brace, despite pleas that it was essential for me post-surgery. "Don't matter me none" was what the security person yelled at me as she warned me for a final time to take it off or get arrested.

I complied, went through the rigmarole and then 22 minutes after having arrived at security, met again with my mother who was waiting at the other end, only to realize that my laptop was missing. Another eight minutes and much heartburn later we found it in one of the trays that had been put away for the day.

Now back at my mom's side, our wheelchairs together, our luggage all accounted for, we began our journey to the gate. But now our two wheelchair attendants had decided to get nasty. My mum's attendant was especially hateful and was tongue-lashing my mum through the entire 10-minute journey, which they made happen as slowly as possible, as they were done for the day and didn't want to deal with any more passengers. We wished to board on time; they wished for our journey to never end, or end only when their shift did.

It was only on the airplane that we found comfort and some semblance of order and peace. The Continental Legacy flight attendant couldn't have given us a more heartfelt welcome on board. The emotional trauma of our ordeal stayed with me even after the pain I was subjected to at the security check-in eased; insomniac that I am, I slept 12 of the 13 hours that our flight was in the air. I woke up minutes before touch down. And by the time I was truly awake we had already made our smooth landing. A nutty aroma had begun to filter into the cabin. It was the Delhi air that everyone had warned us about.

Much had been made in the media, both at home and abroad, about the quality of air--the "noxious haze"--that would welcome us in New Delhi. We braced ourselves to adjust from the relatively clean air we'd been breathing for six months to what we'd heard would assault us upon landing in India.

Seconds after the doors were opened, we found ourselves in our wheelchairs, with no drama at all. Just a sharing of our boarding pass had us on our way to immigration. Seamlessly, even after buying some duty-free goodies, we found ourselves at the baggage carousel. Luggage on carts, with porters pushing them in tandem with our wheelchair attendants, we made it out into the atmosphere of New Delhi to be greeted by familiar faces and open arms.

Homecoming for us was not about the pollution at all. We were happy to be home, where human beings are valued above profit and industry. Where smiles and welcome are afforded despite inequality in jobs and other vexing and challenging issues. In New Delhi, the city where I was born and now make home, I found myself proud to be Indian and proud to be a human being.

What Mom and I experienced in Newark was evidence of the many systemic failures that are breaking America beyond easy repair. Inaccessible access to amenities that make life easier for the differently abled, inequality, racial division, and disenfranchisement at the voting booth are some of the issues that make it imperative for America to have a homecoming moment of its own. It is a land desperately in need of honest dialog and tough awakening.

We might have polluted air; we may have poverty; all nations have both when they are developing. And we may not have the sparkle and shimmer that America has. But in India, people still are people and still help one another, smiling and treating each other with dignity and care. My hope is that as we become an industrialized nation and strive to climb to the top of the world's economic ladder, that we don't turn into people who treat each other like animals, who bark at one another, who shame one another, who hurt one another, all for corporate greed.

Disclaimer: The author of this opinion article is Suvir Saran, who is Chef, Author, World Traveler (ANI)

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