Sunday, 28 April 2013

A coffin night

'It's coffin night, Kapoor saheb, get ready,' my boss says to me. As I hear these words I seem to shrink into my chair, collapsing almost under the burden of my misery. When I had joined Air France as a Cargo Officer at the Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi half a decade back, I never thought I would have to carry out such a taxing task.

Once again a coffin bearing a body of young man is arriving from abroad and I'm being entrusted with a responsibility to hand it over to the family of the deceased after finishing certain formalities with the officials at the airport. Once again a melancholy coffin night awaits me and reluctant though I prepare myself to get lost in its endless darkness.

Air travelers sweeping towards the IGI Airport can easily get lost in the sumptuous grandeur of its terminal 3.  However, under the cloak of its splendor lie some harrowing tales hidden from the outer world. I still have a vivid memory of the days I spent there whilst working for Air France.  The work on terminal 3 was still in progress then. My job was to handle the import-export operations of Air France’s commercial cargo at the cargo section of the airport, just a few walks away from the terminal 2.

After finishing my late night flight operations at 2 am, I would often stroll off towards the terminal and spend hours there contemplating the multitudes of passengers darting in and out carrying suitcases, and valises in their hands; custom officials in their white robes preying upon usual suspects; the gorgeous air-hostesses of international airlines giggling and chattering among themselves. An aura of exquisiteness pervaded in the atmosphere of the airport due to their presence. The elderly rotund air-hostesses of Air India swathed in brightly colored sarees were conspicuously distinct in appearance from their counter-parts. They reflected the state of their airline: dismal and misshapen.

Interminable queues of passengers jostled round the check in counters; CRPF constables trotted about in all directions with sniffer dogs. I was literally drunk with all the spectacles that pulsated with life, vitality, and disorderliness.

The most difficult part of my job in Air France though was to hand over coffins bearing bodies arriving from abroad, mostly Canada, to their families.Those were the corpses of young men who had gone abroad to earn bread and better with dreams of better life in their hearts, but committed suicide after losing hope or died in accidents.   
 One of the formalities was to take along with me one acquaintance of the dead listed as the intended receiver of the body to the warehouse at the terminal where the coffin was kept. One unforgettable incident wherein I handed over a young man’s coffin to his father is still deeply engraved into my memory.

The body was that of a young Punjabi man in his twenties. His coffin arrived from Canada where he had gone in search of a better life. A farmer, he committed suicide after failing to endure the hardships of life. Two gloomy men, his father and uncle, came to me with a piece of paper where the latter’s name was listed as the intended receiver of the coffin.  I was supposed to take him along with me to the terminal to complete the formalities. Due to security reasons, only one man listed as the receiver – in this case the uncle - was allowed entry inside the terminal. Therefore, I asked the father to wait outside the airport until the formalities are done.

However, the heartbroken father, desperate to be the first one to get a glimpse of his young son’s body, entreated to take him along with me as well. I told him I could not do it and asked him to wait for a while. He would not listen to me. Now and then a large tear trickled down his delicate cheek. The miserable father with his hands folded, knelt down before me, and beseeched to take him to his beloved son.

His moving gesture shook me hard and left me speechless for a while. Cold shivers ran down my spine. I straightaway rushed to an official to plead for the wretched father’s case. After getting the necessary approval, I took him to his son’s coffin. The father broke down when he saw it and swooned forthwith.

Whilst witnessing this heart-rending spectacle, Shakespeare’s famous character King Lear’s words rang inside my head which he utters after seeing his daughter Cordelia’s dead body:

And my poor fool is hang’d ! No, no, no life !
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life,
And thou no breath at all ? Thou’lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never !
Pray you, undo this button: thank you, Sir.
Do you see this ? Look on her, look, her lips,
Look there, look there !               [Dies.

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