The trip does not start well. At Pittsburgh airport the agent tells me that my checked baggage is four pounds over weight. She wants me to transfer the excess weight into my carry on bag. While lifting or rearranging the bags in a hurry, I injure my left wrist. Now the left hand cannot bear any weight. I have trouble lifting the carry on bag into the overhead bin of the aircraft.
A little over an hour after take off, the city lights of Chicago appear below, like a million shiny gold bars arranged in an elaborate pattern that begins at the dark edge of Lake Michigan and stretches into the distant western horizon. The sun is about to set. As the airplane banks to land at O’Hare airport, I catch a glimpse of the western sky, deep red in color. Just as the airplane wheels touch the runway, the color disappears and the sky turns dark.
Taking down the carry on bag from the overhead bin is easier than I had worried. But the left hand is now slightly swollen, and the pain has worsened. With only the right hand I am unable to raise the carry on bag on to my back. When I try to carry the bag on my right side, it keeps banging into my right knee. I am afraid that I might injure my right knee. I stand helpless near the long escalator leading to the baggage claim area at O’Hare. The Friday evening crowd of travelers rushes past me. Unable to take the escalator I am annoyed at everyone … unfairly for what is my own fault. After about ten minutes of fuming, it occurs to me that I can raise the bag on to a seat with the right hand, wait, and then lift the bag further up the seat back. Then I can turn around, sit down on the seat and get the bag on to my back. That works, and I go down the escalator to the baggage claim area.
I am able to get the rental car rather quickly. But the drive to the city is slow. The highway I-90 is clogged. There is the normal rush hour traffic plus the additional traffic of supporters and protesters of a Trump rally that will take place at the University of Illinois, Chicago campus. I reach Rahul’s place after an extra half hour of driving.
The next day afternoon Rahul and I arrive at the airport to catch the flight from Chicago to Delhi. We arrive a little later than the customary 3 hours before the flight. The check in and security lines are long. The agent incorrectly prints two Chicago-Delhi boarding passes for Rahul and none for me. We have to go back and get one printed for me. We reach the gate just as the last passengers are boarding the aircraft. I am pleased to find much leg room in the Air India flight.
The aircraft heads straight north over Lake Michigan into Canada. The route map shows it flying over Greenland, Sweden, Finland, Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan into India. This route appears needlessly curved and, hence, longer than a straight route, an illusion caused by the flat map, which cannot account for Earth’s curvature.
I watch the English movie Big Short about the financial collapse of 2008. It depicts the criminal extremes of capitalism: banks preying on the hopes and dreams of millions of ordinary people, enticing them with sub prime mortgage, packaging the worthless mortgages into credit default swaps (CDS), selling the CDS to unsuspecting investors, and ultimately causing millions of ordinary people to lose their homes and jobs. But some are able to profit even from the collapse. The character Ben Rickert played by actor Brad Pitt chides his successful protegés as they begin to celebrate their potential gains from the collapse: “You just bet against the American economy. If we’re right it means people lose homes, jobs, retirement savings, pensions. These aren’t just numbers. For every point unemployment goes up, 40 thousand people die. Did you know that?”
I recall receiving repeated calls from my mortgage lender Countrywide, months before the collapse, enticing me to reduce my monthly mortgage payment (by extending the loan period). On the third call I asked the caller what advantage was he offering me by making me pay more finance charges. The caller laughed, and kept the phone down. A few months later Countrywide went belly up.
I watch another movie. This time a Malayalam movie called Left, Right, Left (actual name, not a translation), which in contrast to Big Short is fictional and has corrupt communism as its theme. A central character is a powerful, corrupt leader, who does not hesitate to get people murdered for standing in his way. The character makes a brief, but effective, appearance in the movie. He is confronted by a fellow ideologue, “Che Guera” Roy who asks about a bribe that the leader took for awarding a government project to a certain company. The leader explains, in a North Malabar Malayalam accent, that the money was used for helping his party and the poor people who support the party. But Roy points out that the leader must have personally used some of the bribe money. How else did he finance his son’s education in London? The leader narrates his story in a chilling tone. His grandfather was a bonded laborer of a feudal land owner, who worked perpetually for subsistence, enduring the humiliation of getting whipped even for small mistakes. His father (barely) escaped the servitude with the help of the flag pole erected by the party. Now, it is his turn. He must receive reparations for their suffering. He will not let anyone stand in his way, not even Roy.
Once on a night train from my hometown Tiruvalla to Kannur, I shared a compartment with a political leader, whose was implicated in a similar bribery scheme. My berth was right outside the leader’s coupe in the train. Two men approached me and introduced themselves as the leader’s body guards. They asked whether I would mind moving to another berth so that they can sit right outside the coupe, to guard the leader. I recall that they were extremely polite.
Now the plane is flying 35,000 ft over Afghanistan, close to Kabul. I catch a glimpse of the western part of Himalaya through the airplane window. The snow-covered peaks are a gleaming white. They appear peaceful and sacred. Surely, this landscape cannot stir up violence in the hearts of men, I think. The plane heads further south-east, and soon the landscape changes. The whiteness of snow peaked mountains gives way to brown rocky mountains, dry, dreary, desolate. Perhaps this could drive men to senseless violence, such as to destroy the Buddhas of Bamiyan with machine guns.
We arrive at Delhi Indira Gandhi International Airport on time, Sunday afternoon. We check into the airport hotel conveniently located near the transit lounge and spend the night comfortably.