The Underground Baggage Miners of Delhi

Tim Campbell

Departure

I easily made my connecting flight in Los Angeles and landed in San Francisco on a six-hour layover. The only blemish on my pending onward journey was that my little green suitcase wasn’t in step with me. Somehow the airline’s agents at LAX couldn’t get my bag fifty yards from Gate 41 to Gate 49, and it missed my connection to SFO. Would it catch up with me before I departed for Goa, India?  While standing at the boarding gate at Lufthansa, I got word on my cell phone that the bag was to arrive at SFO about the same time as my departure. 

That Missing Feeling in Goa

Plying my way through aromas of curry and took-took exhaust in old Goa, I found toiletries and a couple of cotton shirts (made in China) to hold me until my bag arrived. Back at my hotel, I spent some of the last remaining minutes on my dying cell phone—the charger was you know where—to call the 800 airlines number about the bag. After long pauses, a voice with a Texas accent on the other end said: “It should have reached ‘Goya’ yesterday,” and after an awkward pause, “What day is it there, anyway?”

“Look,” I said, “My flight out departs early in the morning. Are you sure about your information?”

“Yes, yes,” she replied confidently, “that is what I have on my computerized baggage report.”  Then she added: “Perhaps, if early enough, y’all can intercept your bag at the Goya airport before your departure.”

“Thanks for the advice,” I said, hanging up.

At 4 a.m., I was on a narrow road headed for the airport through a heavy monsoon. The wipers on the taxi were completely overwhelmed by the roar of water hitting us. My driver helped me penetrate the Indian military constabulary posted at every doorway at Goa’s modest aerodrome. Once inside, the baggage master, after fumbling through papers and inspecting the empty bin for lost bags, declared, “Must have gone back to Delhi.”

Nadia and Icy-Green Eyes

Six hours later, I landed at the sprawling Delhi airport, every tempo quickening. I felt a little Mickey Spillane inside as I approached the desk of the Air India baggage master. I’m closing in, I thought.

A chap sitting on a rolling desk chair scooted about his office with great alacrity and purpose. “I know every bag that comes through here,” he said unequivocally. He glanced at my tags. “It’s not here.” He rolled over to his phone, and while pecking off a dozen digits in rapid-fire on the dialer, said, “Nadia will know.” 

The ring tone faintly sounded and, while waiting for her to pick up, he added, “She handles the Lufthansa lost baggage.”  I got the feeling he had a little something beyond baggage brewing there with Nadia. A response came on the line; he stiffened and jumped into Hindi.

After a few minutes and several hundred unintelligible syllables, I re-insinuated myself into what seemed to have been a detour from the topic of lost baggage. I waved my hand and flashed a questioning plea on my face. He shifted in his chair, uttered a few more words with “Lufthansa” in the mix, and handed me the phone. I felt the matter was coming closer to completion, my bag back in my hands.

“Your bag is in Mumbai,” Nadia said with a sharp British accent. “Don’t ask why.”  I didn’t have to.  Mumbai is the intermediate stop between Goa and Delhi. “I have instructed our agents there to place the bag on tonight’s flight back to Munich so that it can get out of customs control and be sent here to Delhi. You can pick it up the day after tomorrow.” Forget about the change of clothes for my seminar tomorrow here in Delhi. A good Goa cotton will do.

Another 4 a.m. wake-up call, this time a cargo of giardia lamblia weighing heavily in my gut. I’ll get some Flagyl at the airport pharmacy, I thought, but I have to get the bag first. Nadia had warned me that I should be at the Lufthansa office first thing because, after a couple of hours, the agents would have to abandon their desks to attend to the mornings’ incoming flights, and I had a mid-morning departure for Sri Lanka. Missing the bag now would mean, at best, another lengthy delay, at worst, another foray into the apparel kiosks in Colombo for Sri Lankan cottons—this time for more than shirts.

In the 1960’s terminal, I worked my way through a warren of featureless hallways and nondescript office entrances, each with a small sign identifying an airline, but each doorway a half a city block from the next.

I hustled into the Lufthansa office and felt, for the third time, that I was closing in on my orphaned bag. But between the earlier misses and my rumbling tummy, I didn’t have quite so much Spillane in me.

Nadia wasn’t there. Instead, I encountered a thin, well-dressed clerk, dark skin and utterly icy-green eyes, which stared flatly at my explanation. He bid me to take a seat. I could see he was entering data on his computer. A total of ten uniformed youngsters floated in and out of the office with no apparent mission. After a few minutes, I pressed forward to green eyes.

“Perhaps I should explain,” I offered, tightening all my rivets to keep the steam from blowing out. “My bag has been chasing me for a week; it has been in and out of Delhi twice, I am feeling sick, and I have to catch a flight to Sri Lanka in a couple of hours’ time.” The words tumbled out, each clause with a tiny bit more edge. Without disturbing a single facial fiber, green eyes aimed his glare at a floater and uttered something in Hindi. The floater took over data entry while green eyes glanced at my tag and pulled out some forms for me to fill in. “Your bag is in our warehouse,” he disclosed without fanfare. “I need these details.”

The completed forms, properly stamped, marked yellow in two places, signed four times counting mine, were handed over to a turbaned Sikh. Green eyes said: “Follow Mr. Sikh.” A half-kilometer of hallway later, we entered another office. The sign at the door read: fiscal control. A small tree of rubber stamps stood prominently on the desk of the confident young civil servant manning his station. After glancing at the form, he said: “The duty officer has not signed off.”  He restored the coveted “cleared” stamp to its place on the tree, leaned back in his chair, hands clasped behind his head, a look of bureaucratic fulfillment on his face.

Mr. Sikh made the kilometer roundtrip to green eyes and, in another twenty minutes, the “cleared” stamp made its mark with a thud, and we were off to station number three: security. After that, it was a breeze to the “international” area, where a white-uniformed brother Sikh collected a couple of more signatures and scribbled us through a locked gate.

Armadillo in the Mine of Checked Bags

With gastric tumult building in my tummy, we entered a long passageway just off the main arrival hall, and the open light of day began to recede behind us. We descended downward through an ever-narrowing passage into dimmer light, occasional standing water and debris pushed to the edges of the walkway. At the end of the long corridor, rather more like a mine shaft, we entered a stale, dimly lit cavern of luggage. Thousands of suitcases, roll-ons, duffels, and boxes sat forlornly in a mountain, their penultimate resting place.

Three figures sat illuminated only by pale green light coming off their video screen, where their solitaire game progressed slowly. Mr. Sikh advanced his papers forward, unperturbed by the intrusion he was making into their game. Armadillo nonchalantly thumbed through the papers, returning his gaze from time to time to the solitaire screen. After a long pause on page four of the Sikh’s forms, he looked again at my turbaned escort and calmly asked for 150 rupees. Cash in hand, the armadillo signed and stamped the form, looked once more at the solitaire cards, and without taking his eyes off the video screen, blurted out some code in Hindi.

The miners behind him turned to the task, tracing row and column with their fingers held up to their eyes as though aiming a robotic arm. They zeroed in on a quadrant quite far up in the middle of the mountain. There it was, my small bag, tags sprouting everywhere, an orange “Priority,” a pink “Transfer,” a red “Rush.”  No locks on the bag, and without a thing missing, I snapped it shut. It took only three more signatures to get to daylight and to the pharmacy for that Flagyl.


About the Author

Beginning in the 1990s, while working at the World Bank, Campbell began writing stories about life on the road and at home. He has published three professional books at reputable presses (e. g., Routledge, London, and University of Pittsburgh Press), is shopping a memoir, and writing short stories. A handful of stories will appear this fall in journals such as Catamaran and The Smart Set, among others. He holds a doctorate in urban studies from MIT. TimcampbellPhD@gmail.com