I had planned to leave New York City for Kolkata by the end of March. On March 24th Prime Minister Modi announced a total lockdown in response to the Covid pandemic. All flights in and out of the country ceased, as did domestic flights, trains, and busses. As months rolled by the chances of returning to Kolkata seemed distant. By late May Vande Bharat flights started repatriating stranded Indians across the world. In early June Overseas Citizens of India (OCIs), like me who faced emergency situations, were permitted to apply for these missions.

I immediately swung into action. My partially blind 90-year-old mother with whom I live was increasingly anxious for me to return. I put in my application and through my networks made the Consul General in New York aware of my circumstances. Much to my delight I received a letter on Friday 5th of June that I could depart for Kolkata on the Air India flight scheduled on Monday the 8th with a few conditions.This included medical screening, paying one lakh for a one way ticket in economy class (one could opt to pay more and travel Business or First Class), agreeing to quarantine for a week at my own expense in an approved hotel, and then for another week at home. Downloading the Arogya Setu app was also mandatory. Though I cringed about privacy issues relating to the app, I rushed to fill out the requisite form. I hit return accepting all the conditions stipulated and provided my credit card details to pay for the flight.

When I had not received confirmation from Air India by Sunday afternoon, I realized I had sent the reply to the Consul General mailbox, rather than to Air India as instructed! My daughter, Shikha, spent the entire evening into late night trying to contact Air India to see if I could still buy a ticket and make the flight the next day as the next flight was scheduled for a few weeks later. After long waits and numerous queries and discussions with a host of Air India staff, it became apparent that they had no information or authority to assist us as these were not commercial flights.

At 10 pm Shikha, found a 24-hour Consular Covid Helpline to get advice on how to proceed. The staff there was extremely helpful,confirmed that I was on the original list of persons permitted to fly. They explained that the flight was booked, but many passengers had problems with a malfunctioning payment link. They advised I reach the airport at 6:00 am and if there was a cancellation, I may get a seat on the flight. My friend Mallika and Shikha, determined to get me on the flight, woke up bright and early to accompany me there.

Rather than being among the first to arrive, a long line of passengers wrapped around an otherwise empty terminal! While I joined the exceptionally long line, Mallika and Shikha scoped the situation to see how they could get name on the stand-by list. When they were able to track down the Administrator, the man making decisions regarding standbys and generally in charge, they learned my name was not on any list. It was only through the intervention of the Consul General, who was at the airport, that the Administrator included me on the stand-by list. Should there be a seat available, he would decide who would be given priority.

By 8:30 am my chances to fly out seemed bleak, but Mallika insisted I focus on catching the flight. A take-charge person she instructed Shikha to hover discreetly by the Administrator, always staying in his view. He assured Shikha, should a seat open, he would let her know. I called my friend Susmita, a practicing Buddhist, who had booked my hotel to let her know I may not be on the flight. She hurried off the phone to chant for me to catch the flight.

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At about 9 am there was a crowd gathering as cameras rolled and passengers were being interviewed about the emergency or compelling situations they faced that required their return: a Fulbright scholar expecting her four year old and seven month old to join her in a matter of days, had been stranded since late March and was unable to be with her family and infant as planned; a young man trying to make it back to be with his parents who were both in the hospital as Covid patients; and other harrowing tales unfolded of people rushing to get home to take care of a pregnant daughter or a critically ill family member. The Administrator, with my daughter close on his heels, joined the passengers being filmed.

Nidhi Gupta, a young passenger was moved by their stories and in a spontaneous, compassionate gesture offered to give up her ticket to someone who needed it more than she. The Administrator turned to my daughterand asked Nidhi if she would surrender ticket so that I could return home. Nidhi agreed instantly. I saw my daughter walk with the young woman to the Air India payment counter. While Shikha was at the ticketing counter, Susmita called saying she had finished chanting and asked whether I was on the flight? Shikha, returned, ticket in hand, recounting what had transpired. I wanted to thank Nidhi for her extraordinarily generous gift, but I could not find her.

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By a little after 10 am, my temperature and hotel booking was checked, and my boarding card issued. I breezed through security in an eerily empty airport. On board the staff, looking more like doctors than stewards had their hair in nets,wore masks and protective clothing and shoes. A plastic bag was placed on each seat; it packet included various packets and boxes of food, mask, face shield and protective outer garments. No pillows, blankets, or in-flight entertainment. Every seat occupied. The pilot announced that the packets provided were to last the entire journey -- water and packets would be available at the galleys. The stewards sat at the rear end of the plane with a metal trash container separating them from the passengers. We never saw the stewards again till landing.

I have never experienced such a quiet and somber flight to India. Even the babies did not cry! Almost everyone wore the masks and face shields throughout the long journey, and many wore the protective cape as well. People were conscious of sanitizing their hands when they ate or touched surfaces. Nobody lounged or walked down the aisles. When we touched down at Delhi passengers disembarked in a very orderly manner – not the usual pushing and shoving that characterizes most flights with Indian passengers. We continued to Kolkata. At the airport,my temperature was taken and after clearing immigration the baggage took extraordinarily long to arrive as each piece of luggage was sanitized. People queued up patiently to provide hotel details to the government staff who ensured passengers proceeded to their respective hotels before allowing them to leave the airport. I was told that the police escorted many passengers to their hotels.

The government staff at the airport kept my passport, assuring me they would return it to me the following day. On arrival at The Lalit, one of the heavily subsidized hotels on the approved list, my bags were sanitized again. I was told that, for the duration of my stay, should I want to leave my room, I could only go down to the empty marble lobby of the silent hotel. At each meal plastic trays of food with disposable cutlery were provided outside my door. Through the day and night there was pin-drop silence as there was a skeletal staff for the handful of guests, some of whom were stranded at the hotel since the lockdown, and the few on my flight that had selected this grand, old renovated hotel that was on the approved list.

This experience taught me many lessons. From Mallika I learned that positive thinking and focus is critical to the attainment of one’s goal. From Susmita I learned the power of faith. Shikha taught me quiet persistence even when the odds are stacked against you. Nidhi, someone I have never met, taught me the generosity of the human spirit. I was so moved by her spontaneous gesture of utmost compassion. She sacrificed her own desire and convenience for someone she thought had a greater need. My fellow passengers, many of whom faced extraordinary hurdles to get home to even more troubling and dire circumstances than mine, modeled how to face difficult circumstances with dignity as they responded to meet their family needs selflessly. The staff of the Consulate, the flight crew, airport, and hotel personnel epitomized grace and patience to ensure the safety of those in their care.

In took many remarkable people, acts of good will, and a few miracles to get me home in these new, bewildering, and uncertain times!

Photo credits: Banner Left: thestatesman.com; Banner Right: moneycontrol.com