I started the new year 2019 embarking on a bachelor trip with my closest friends. This idea was floated by my dear friend, Manoj Burad, who suggested that our alma mater (Engineering college) sponsored Alumni Meet 2019 would be the right place to go, at the right time. It would be a big opportunity to take some time out to appreciate our roots, institution and people who shaped our lives. SSGMCE (Shri Sant Gajanan Maharaj College of Engineering), Shegaon organized a flawless Alumni Meet, 2019, for two days – with accommodation, meals, cultural events, local sightseeing and interaction with staff and students. It was two of the most humble days in my recent lifespan. The college also impressed our group in leaps and bounds with state of the art infrastructure (how many auditoriums in the world have BOSE speakers?) and yet had their soul steeped deep in humility.
Once there, we touched the feet of every teacher and support staff (librarian, security, barber, the mess in charge etc) who had shaped our lives 20 years ago, and were still present. I forgot all my worries, pains and kept my humour at its peak. Earnestly trying to make everyone smile, at every interaction. Even there, I was upfront and honest with my joblessness status. At every interaction or registration point, I declared that ‘I was currently unemployed from service life and trying self-employment as an author’. It was the only answer I knew. I am bad at faking and never afraid to say or face the truth. It gives me extreme inner peace. I made this data a side-act and let my personality be projected more. It was a dream visit and, personally for me, it finished on a high as I was given an opportunity to do a ten-minute standup comedy act in front of 1500+ boisterous, warm and intelligent crowds.
4 Jan 2019 – The burden of a lost baggage
It all didn’t start this smoothly, though. At Nagpur airport on 4 Jan 2019, Air Asia Airlines lost my luggage. After a sleepless night (due to catching a 5:30am flight from Bangalore), my friends and I were stuck at Nagpur airport with no signs of my luggage. The Air Asia ground staff, after two hours of search, concluded that they could not track the luggage at Nagpur or at Bangalore airports. The clock had struck 10am and the train to our Engineering college railway station was due to depart at 11am. The railway station was 20 mins away. I had lost my only luggage at the start of the trip. Time was running out and decisions needed to be taken. Should I stay back at Nagpur or proceed to the train station? Are the Air Asia staff capable of locating my luggage? Even if they retrieve, when would the luggage arrive at the Nagpur Airport? Would the authorities be able to send the luggage to my future destinations – Indore, Jodhpur or Delhi? Nagpur was only my transit point, Should I now make it my halt point?
My corporate crisis handling skills came to my rescue, aided by three friends, who unconditionally backed me. I first sent a message to Manoj (who was yet to join us and was physically built as large as me) and asked him to get his clothes for me. Secondly, I listened to my friends. Niraj Jhunjhunwala & Avinash Nayak out-logiced me and suggested we continue our journey and let the burden of tracking the luggage be with Air Asia. We proceeded to the train station. No sooner had we reached the railway station, that the Air Asia Nagpur unit head gave me a call. They had received a call from a passenger who had picked my luggage and said will return it only on her return journey, which was four days later. Air Asia passed me the number of the passenger, a lady, and asked me to coordinate with her. Suddenly and conveniently, Air Asia passed the burden of tracking the luggage on me; under the pretext that the lady wasn’t picking their calls. They were right. The lady wasn’t picking up calls for hours. Although, that didn’t necessarily mean that Air Asia shirk off their responsibilities just because the luggage loss was not their fault. Under conditions of the carriage, I had handed my baggage to Air Asia and they were responsible till they handed it back to me. But Air Asia had stepped aside.
My friend, Avinash, then used the ‘True Caller’ facility (very helpful in India) to track the name of the lady. We got her name – Rasla Azhar Khan, her email and started messaging her. Strangely, she was reading my WhatsApp messages, but not replying. Neither responding to my emails. It became a big pain. After seven hours, her first reply came. And over the next three days, she maintained that same irresponsible frequency. She would pick only one phone call out of ten; would reply once every 7-8 hours and wouldn’t care a damn for picking someone else’s luggage. Note, this wasn’t a case of exchange of similar looking bags. This was a case of passenger picking an additional bag that never belonged to her. Her first response, instead of any remorse, was full of illiteracy. In her world, it was the airport’s responsibility to find that she had picked the luggage, track her and that Air Asia need to send people to her residence to collect. She said she could not return on 4 Jan or 5 Jan and will only return on 7 Jan. Having said the above, she never shared her address that day (or even in the next four days). I had reached Shegaon by then, was wearing my friend’s clothes and feeling helpless listening to Air Asia repeatedly telling me their rules and limitations. They said they cannot go to pick up the luggage and that the passenger has to return it herself to the airport. That they wouldn’t care less and if the luggage isn’t returned for seven days, as they will then declare it as lost and pay me a paltry 4000 INR ie 60 USD! That their office at Nagpur airport closes 2pm every day and Rasla could only return it by 2pm, any day. Not after 2pm. I started worrying hard. The night looked dark and despondent to me.
5 Jan 2019: Trapped between messages and false hopes
In my international roaming phone, using my friends’ Hotspot, I kept pleading to Rasla Azhar Khan to please return my suitcase the next day ie 5 Jan 2019. I explained to her that I was an NRI (Non-Resident Indian) and had cash, documentation and all my winter clothing in that suitcase. That every passing day without the suitcase was making it tough for me. That I was willing to pay her for any transportation charges needed for the suitcase to be delivered. As usual, after multiple messages and hours had passed by, she finally replied. She stated that she would return the suitcase that day at 4pm at Nagpur airport. Now it became my headache to plead with Air Asia to keep one staff at the airport beyond 2pm and stay till 5pm to receive the luggage. They agreed and waited, and waited. Rasla Azhar Khan had bluffed us. A random relative picked up the phone finally at 6pm and asked if airport authorities can come to a point many miles away to collect. That was bad. With such poor communication and broken promises, no one was going to travel to a remote place hoping to complete the job. It seemed nobody was coming to the airport that day and it was just a poor joke. I called them again to express my disappointment. Rasla’s husband, Azhar Khan, this time picked up the phone, abused his wife multiple times saying ‘stupid lady’ and said will return the luggage the next day morning 6am, come what may. I finally heard some voice of responsibility.
6 Jan 2019: New voice, old attitude
6 Jan I woke up at 5am to track Rasla & Air Asia for the status and yet, nobody arrived. Around 10am, after several messages and call attempts, Rasla picked up a call. This time she abused her husband saying ‘he was drunk all night with friends’ as they are in a marriage and hence still sleeping. You would expect at a marriage party, there would be cars at disposal and frequent guests coming in or going out through the airport. That returning a mistakenly picked luggage would be a priority task. Forget being considerate, the sense of irresponsibility, lack of fear of any legal consequences (note: they had, after all, picked up a suitcase and weren’t returning) and general callousness was there to see. Rasla then casually said she will try sending the luggage at 4pm that day. It was getting frustrating. While my college has organised a super Alumni meet, I found it tough to enjoy the moments.
Once again from 2pm onwards, I started sending messages to both parties to adhere to timelines, to get status and location coordinates frequently and yet once again, the replies from Rasla never came. The clock struck 4pm and beyond. Nobody had come to the airport. That evening, yet another of her relatives picked up the phone and said will return the luggage around 10am on 7 Jan 2019. I had passed four days by now in Daddy Chips owner, Manoj Burad’s, clothes. Returning the luggage on 7 Jan meant I could only get it on 9 Jan at Delhi. This was because 7 & 8 Jan I was to be at Jodhpur and Air Asia said they didn’t have any office at Jodhpur Airport, hence couldn’t send the luggage there. All along this period, my friends, despite seeing me seethe with frustration, told me never to get angry or threaten Rasla or Air Asia with any consequences. They were right. Pleading was my best bet. Else, to both parties, this was a piece of luggage they could throw by the drain and move ahead in life. Listening to trustworthy and ‘willing to give their everything for me’ friends was my biggest strength at that point. These weren’t people who had opinions or judgement about me, they were just there for me, and with an extended shoulder. I had spent barely 800 INR ie 10 USD till now on one toothbrush, disposable razor, spare bag and inner wear. For everything else, my friends were there. It created a deep lasting memory and sense of belief in me. I had a security ring around me, even in my darkest hour.
7 Jan 2019: The do or die day
Rasla Azhar Khan was supposed to be returning back to her destination (Bangalore) on this day. If she chose not to return the luggage, I could end up never seeing my baggage again. I had made up my mind that if Nagpur airport didn’t receive the luggage that day, I would extend my trip in India and visit Rasla at Bangalore and if needed, even to her relatives at Nagpur. I was not going to lose this battle without a fight. For four days she couldn’t give one justified reason why she delayed in returning the luggage; hence my lack of trust in her remained high. I started the day messaging her multiple times pleading to return the luggage, making it clear that my image of India and Indians like her had become very poor, post this episode. That its people like her who represent the country poorly with such lackadaisical attitude. I then started contacting the Air Asia team to keep a tab with the airlines that Rasla would be flying back – to which Air Asia denied. I requested them to hang around till 5pm and keep an eye if Rasla just keeps the luggage in one corner of the departure terminal, instead of formally handing over. As usual, Air Asia threw the rule book at my face on everything they cannot do. It all seemed that I wasn’t the victim but the real culprit and that both parties were doing me a big favour by returning the suitcase. While I was busy calling and texting, anticlimax happened. Around 11am, a random driver came and handed over the suitcase to Air Asia Nagpur airport in charge, Abhishek. Abhishek assured me that it was indeed my luggage – so far I never had 100% proof that Rasla indeed had my luggage, as she wasn’t replying to the details I sought in the messages. He promised to send over the luggage to Delhi, from where I could collect it two days later, I was more at ease now. This was the day we were to fly from Indore to Jodhpur. I took that flight with a lot of mental peace.
While on the flight, I reflected back on the past four harrowing days.. sprinkled with bouts of anger, anxiousness and comfort from my friends. I was in the same pair of jeans, socks and shoes for the fifth day running and would have to manage two more days. The non-stop messaging to both parties was draining my energy (and my phone batteries) regularly. Yet, the trip gave me loads of good memories, neutral memories and some proud moments too. One hour before my standup comedy slot on 5 Jan 2019, in front of a crowd of 1500+, I didn’t feel good about myself. Having just come off harrowing calls with Rasla and Abhishek (Air Asia) I was feeling bad about everything around me. I was thinking of not doing my standup act. Yet my friends, sitting next to me, urged me on. They said, cancelling that performance, wasn’t an option. When I was walking up on to the stage, at that instant, I was unemployed for 131 days, globally shamed on the internet, my family pictures abused on the internet, all companies that considered my CV till that point refusing my candidature, my resettlement plans unsure, my luggage lost and I was in borrowed clothes for days now. The only things I had in my favour were my three friends amidst that crowd; a warm bunch of college alumni, current staff and students; select family members and friends (in my mind) who adore me unconditionally; and my own fighting spirit.
I got my luggage back on 9 Jan 2019.
A week later, Air Asia wrote to me ‘sorry for the inconvenience’ – but didn’t feel it necessary to compensate me in any way.
Another week later, Chubb Insurance compensated me with my travel insurance claim.
I will share some of the claim amount, with my dear friends.