Case of the missing suitcase

I halted in my tracks. My God! Though it was of the same size and colour, it wasn't mine.

Small or big, an aircraft is an aircraft, a marvellous invention by the Wright brothers that never fails to make me, a seasoned flyer, wonder how it takes off, flies and lands defying the gravitational pull.

In those days, the service from Madras to Madurai was offered by the now defunct NEPC Airlines. Pressed into service was a Fokker Friendship aircraft into which the passengers were packed like Marie biscuits in a Rs 5 economy pack. The air hostesses were lithe and willowy. They had to be, for otherwise they would have had to move sideways along the aisle.

Frequent flyers did not carry baggage to be stored in the cargo hold but gave  the hand baggage to the air hostesses who kept them near the pantry. They were unloaded first and lined up in the tarmac so the passengers could pick them up and walk away in a jiffy.

On that day, rather night, I was the last passenger to deplane. I hurried towards the solitary hand baggage, but halted in my tracks. My God! Though it was of the same size and colour, and looked like mine, it was not mine.

The air hostess got panicky and called the ground staff who was around. “Not yours? Then the passenger who deplaned first must have carried yours. A case of mistaken identity, sir.” His statement sounded like the title of a Sherlock Holmes whodunit.’

He added gravely that he knew the  PAX ( short for passenger in airline lingo) – an honourable minister. “He must be speeding home now, 100 km from Madurai with your baggage.” The air hostess wrung her hands. The ground staff, for good measure, wrung his.

“We will keep this in our custody, sir. The moment the minister sends your baggage tomorrow, we will dispatch it to your hotel. Our apologies, sir. Ministers’ portfolios may change, but their briefcases should not!” he said. Despite my predicament, I smiled, enjoying his witticism. When I reached my hotel, the receptionist told me that my wife had called from Madras agitatedly. Mobile phones were yet to become a part of one’s persona. So I booked an urgent call.

“What had happened to you?” my wife boomed. “A minister’s PA called me. He said his boss had picked up the wrong baggage but realised it only late night. And, you know what? The address sticker you had pasted on it gave him your name and the telephone number.”

I wanted to point out that she should eat the words of wifely criticism of my abundant caution — the sticker affair being one — but I thought the better of it. Since Madurai is the town that never goes to sleep, I had no problem in getting a set of inner wear, a dhoti and toilet kit. I went to sleep.

Next morning, I heard the sounds of a battering ram badgering a castle door. When I opened bleary-eyed, a mustachioed person was standing with my baggage. I thought he would apologise profusely on behalf of the minister. But no way. He scratched his nape, an overt signal that his itching hand has to be adequately greased. I did that grudgingly, though as an ‘hon’ble’ minister, his boss should have been more alert where (ahem!) suitcases were  concerned.

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