It was the Christmas of 1991. There was going to be a conference in Madras held under the chairmanship of Dr. M. S. Swaminathan, India’s leading agricultural scientist. The topic was "How to ensure that India’s farmers also benefit from the ongoing Information Revolution". At that time, Dada was interested in promoting the use of computers by India’s farmers to assist them with agricultural and other useful information. I believed that it had the potential of helping them achieve sustainable growth in output. The conference topic kind of compelled me to attend it. I quickly arranged a two week leave of absence from work, bought an Air India return ticket and hopped on a plane bound for Bombay.

I do not have much of a recollection of the flight. A doctor friend had advised, "Take a sleeping pill on boarding the plane, request the stewardess not to disturb for any reason, whatsoever, and go to sleep if you are to participate in the conference actively without jet lag". I got to Bombay literally in the wink of an eye.

For local travel within India, I had purchased a two week excursion fare with confirmed flights from Bombay to Madras and then to Delhi and back to Bombay. You wouldn’t travel in India without confirmed flight reservations because it can be pretty difficult to get one without considerable loss of time, once you are in India. You better stick to the itinerary, or you may have to wait a week before you are able to get a flight reservation. Everybody seems to fly in India and there are not enough planes.

There was quite a long wait before my flight to Madras from.Bombay airport when I happened to notice a sign reminding travelers not to forget reconfirming their flights. Now, there is no such idea of reconfirmation in North America. Here once you make a reservation and buy a ticket, you just get to the airport and board. In India and many other countries, you must reconfirm a flight a day or two before boarding or you may lose your reservation. The idea is that there are lots of other passengers waiting to travel and airlines do not want to fly with empty seats just because you happen to change your plans. If you lose your reservation in this manner, you then have to try and get a new reservation just as you did not have one in the first place. And that was scary enough for me to get up from the waiting lounge and start looking for reconfirmation facilities.

I soon found out that the word "facilities" was an exaggeration by a long shot. The reconfirmation clerk sat in a kiosk which did not seem to be any bigger than 8 feet by 8 feet located just outside the domestic terminal building. The clerk was to start work at 9:00 A. M. I got to the kiosk at about 8:45. It was a bright sunny day. Temperature must have been about 30 degrees Celsius - normal for a cold Bombay winter morning. There must have been 30-40 people crowded around the service window of the kiosk before my joining them increased the size of the crowd by one.

Now Bombay is a very orderly city by Indian standards. Bombayites had discovered queues and how to use them much before normal Indians discovered western oven baked bread. The travelers reconfirming the flights out of Bombay were obviously not from Bombay. Jostling, pushing, and shoving to get to the window ahead of others was chaotic to say the least. The heat of the sun combined with body heat of the crowd created an unbearable feeling. Suddenly a cool, calm and collected female face appeared at the window. She must have entered the kiosk through the door at the back.

At the sight of her, pushing and shoving got fiercer. Travelers with not much time before their flights were keen to attract the clerk’s attention as soon as they saw her face on the other side of the window. I had lots of time before my flight. Yet I got infected by the behavior of the crowd for fear of being kept waiting when the clerk left for lunch. That thought was unnerving.

"My flight is leaving at 9:45." "I don’t have much time either." "She is so damn slow." "Why does the government not hire people who can work faster?" "Why can’t she see that I have been here much longer than the other guy?" Such shouts along with the morning cawing of the omnipresent Indian crows was creating a deafening racket. But nothing seemed to ruffle the face behind the window. She was a picture of poise, serenity, grace, and calm. She reached for the ticket of one traveler after the other and kept on servicing them with dignity but with no smile. It was difficult to smile under the circumstances. Her working conditions were atrocious. To be cooped up in a dinky little kiosk all day under bright Bombay sun reconfirming bitchy travelers’ flights was not my idea of pleasant conditions by any means. Yet I felt refreshed by the sight of the quiet in her face and gleam in her eyes.

I must have waited more than forty five minutes before I found that there was nobody between me and the service window. I pushed my ticket and passport through the window. She put my passport aside and opened the airline ticket. She reached for her computer keyboard, pushed some keys and waited. Then she pushed some keys and waited. And once again she pushed some keys and waited. Then, she put some notations in the ticket and closed it. You know an airline ticket is something like a book. Then she briefly opened my passport and closed it. The she reached for a pad of sticky labels and wrote something. She removed the top label and stuck it on top of my ticket. Then she put the ticket on top of my passport and slid the pile towards me.

I could not help read the message on the sticky label. It said, "Welcome to India, Mr. Talwar. Have a pleasant journey." The gesture of the note touched me to the core and my eyes moistened. I looked up from the note and there were her eyes repeating the very words that her hand had penned as she extended her arm to reach for the ticket of the next traveler. Thus Natasha, Dada reconfirmed much more than mere flights.

Dr. Shiv Talwar