Subcontinental Drift: Prologue Addendum - Of Saris and Sandals


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June 25th 2008
Published: June 30th 2008
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June 29, 2008 Delhi, India

No one ever wants to hear about what happens at an airport. Start telling stories of delays at check-in, indigestible airline food, and the in-flight movie, and eyes roll back after they quickly gloss over.
There are, however, exceptions. American Airlines’ terminal at O’Hare International Airport is essentially a massive self-contained, self-sustaining, detached suburb of Chicago. It deserves more than a cursory look beyond the hunt for a connecting departure gate.
Tuesday afternoons cater to a business crowd. Thin haired, middle aged men in khakis tow wheeled carry-ons with pocket s and slots for every imaginable electronic accessory. I remember hearing that khakis are simply jeans for guys over thirty-five. Now that I have met the age requirement, it all makes sense: replace my red t-shirt for a white button-down collared variety from JC Penney and throw on a blue blazer, and I’d be able to join the willing pawns subservient to corporate America.
There are still several hours to pass before boarding, plenty of time to trample about every wing of the terminal. A communal travel group huddles on the floor and forms a circle. They are bound for a kibbutz in Israel. A young high school student with very wavy locks removes the guitar from his case and insists on a rendition of “Roam” by the B-52’s. The others comply and fill the uncommonly quiet hall with uncommonly bad music. Cuisine personalities who have made a name for themselves more by their flair and quirky enunciation of ingredients have become nothing more than commercial cardboard cutouts of their own image. They have amassed wealth beyond imagination. Their name is forever attached to a brand name. The restaurant, whose original concept was to bring a unique approach to the art of cooking, is like any other branch of the same opening throughout the country’s departure terminals; it welcomes passengers into its sit-down dining rooms of pre-packaged tasteful décor and tables draped in white linen. Next door, lines run more than ten deep at a food court of run-of-the-mill fast food chains. Between the double-decker burger and blistering nuked apple pie, passengers check their cell phone displays to see if any new text messages have arrived in the last forty seconds. They place the flip-flop models at face level ensuring that no direct verbal human interaction can take place. They nurture and caress their cell phones as their own offspring. If the relationship were any closer, the little Motorolas would be breastfed.
I gather my belongings to go to the departure lounge and my barman towels down where my drink once stood. His partner, a Romanian, leans back against the fluorescent lights of the liquor shelves. “The Cubs were excellent last week!” pipes up my server. In his next breath, “I know you don’t understand, but I’m gonna talk about it till the end of our shift.” I put a few stray dollar bills on the bar and I am reminded that Chicago, first and foremost, is a baseball town. Although I have never set my feet beyond the confines of O’Hare, I’ve always liked the city for that reason alone.

When she sat down across from me, she paid me no attention. It remained that way right up until we were called to board. But for her almond skin, the woman in her late teens or early twenties possessed no singular feature of beauty. Other women nearby were a more worthwhile target for my eyes. She does not smile. In fact, there is very little welcoming about her. She flips through her Indian passport and checks messages on her cell phone simultaneously. Not even when I picked up her fallen overnight bag on rollers when kicked over did she make eye contact with me or even speak.
But it is her striking yet simple orange sari in aquamarine floral trim that makes her stand out from the crowd. With her main piece of attire acknowledged, I notice great deal more about her. A sparkling studded ornament adorns the center of her lower temple, equidistant from each eyebrow. A friend in similar dress joins her, but in a crimson and gold sari. Both women, unawares, stun me. I invent ways not to be caught ogling them not for their shape or other desirable features, rather for their presentation. The jewelry brings in me in for a closer look to study the texture of each sari’s fabric. Each has a larger pierced jewel of glittery silver in her right nostril. Nose studs on the cashier ringing up my produce at Stop & Shop do nothing for me; they’re a complete turn off. But on these two!
Working in unison, both remove a Glad plastic container of curried yellow rice from their hand luggage and remove the identifiable blue cover. With plastic forks in hand, both delicately snake their utensils to lift the bright grains to their mouths. They speak to each other in soft tones. Not by sound, attire, or they way they eat does either one make an attempt to call attention to herself. Yet in a departure hall with hundreds of impatient passengers, these two young ladies may as well have been the only two in Chicago.
Each crossed her legs to expose toes extending from ordinary white leather sandals. Exquisite rings were on the second and third toes of their right feet. The tags on their hand luggage indicate they’re from Uttar Pradesh, through which the heart of the Ganges flows. Do all women decorate their feet like this? Is it right to become fixated on the feet of women I don’t even know?
The two’s elegant appearance exude a sense of class, self-respect, and serene femininity long lost on their female counterparts in my world of short shorts, bulging midriffs, and spaghetti straps. I still haven’t decided if I want to like these two. They certainly have given me no reason. But how they look! The magnificence of color! I wanted them to like me, but I was just a guy in a red t-shirt and jeans for men over thirty-five.

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9th July 2008

Highly interesting observations
Extremely happy to see your interesting writeup which does make extraordinary interesting readings to any India. Awaiting your writing on Jodhpur........

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