The soldier and airport security guy are pointing, pointing. What do they want? Not my camera. Not my car clicker.
It’s my pen. A Paper Mate soft grip. See-through plastic, flattened cap. Also — I have no clue why — my wallet. They ignore the I.D. and get to work on trying to strip out the little pockets that hold cards.
“Hey,” I say. This brings instant reinforcements. Sullen faces. Khaki turbans. Guns under armpits, nightsticks stuck to hips.
My plane is loading but I’m taken out of line. I have a Wallet Thought: do these guys need a bribe?
It is April, a few years back. I am in Srinagar, in northern India. According to the signs this minor airfield is more scrupulous than Baghdad’s. More tough than Tel Aviv. The “World’s Strictest Airport Security” is at work.
I believe this boast. I only wish I could learn from the drill. Like almost anyone who flies these days, I’m easy. I’ll do what I’m told if it will make planes safer. But being in Srinagar makes me realise: my obedience has limits. I want — just a little — to understand.
I’ve been frisked now four times but no one’s glanced at my passport. As far as I can see, Osama bin Laden himself would be welcome to board (though not his wallet or pen).
I’m one of a smattering of foreign tourists caught up in separatist shootings and grenade blasts in this city of Himalayan views.
Srinagar is in the region of Kashmir — nowadays split between India and Pakistan.
Militants are striving for statehood. I’m anxious to leave them, along with the sullen Indian soldiers and their security safeguards.
When I’ve walked on Srinagar streets, I’ve had to watch my step. Shoe-shine guys have bombed my Eddie Bauer boots, spilling mud and polishing it off for a fee. A man in large pyjamas has enjoyed himself by trailing me around and trying to tear my sleeve.
The morning of my final day, I see a monkey on a wall. He’s shaking a furry, clenched-up fist. I take this as a sign. I get the message. So long as I can get on a flight, I’m gone.
My suitcase is radioactive thanks to epic X-rays. At a checkpoint on the airport road. At the gate to the airport itself. Entering the terminal building. And, yet again, at check-in.
To top this off, I am informed that before any baggage makes it onto a plane, passengers must “identify” it out on the tarmac. You need a final stamp on your ticket stub and on a special tag.
The gate agent snatches my much smaller carry-on pack as soon as I arrive. She puts it on her scale. I snatch it back. It has a ring for my wife inside and I’ve heard stories about things being stolen, about bags that never arrive.
I lose the tug of war. “You are a man,” she says. “It is forbidden for a man to bring any bag on the plane.” This is when I first protest. It is when I have to give up my wallet and my pen.
What does any of this mean? I think. I imagine some militant in a field not far from the airport ready with his rifle or missile. I see a woman with her permitted carry-on: I envision it stuffed with explosives.
I hear an announcement: my “Jet Airways” flight to Delhi is closing.
I pull out two crumpled 500 Rupee notes (roughly 20 bucks). I watch the paper portrait of Gandhi as it passes from my hand to theirs.
It may be folds along his forehead, but I’m sure that Gandhi is unhappy. Angry at uniforms. Or frowning at what I have done.
There is a conference between caps and turbans. My cash is gone, but instead of heading to the gate, I’m marched to the side. Out through a service entrance where there is no one around.
I am thinking of trying to yell or make a run for it. One of the soldiers grips me by the arm and hauls me behind a pile of suitcases.
This may be it. I’m made to bend down.
“Now,” says the soldier.
I get my pen back and my wallet. I am told to root around and find my smaller pack. What’s this? I am allowed to bring it with me.
I have made it through the World’s Strictest Airport Security. I get the final stamp on my ticket and let out a sigh of relief.
I understand now that security like this has meaning, has its cost. It’s about the price of a Chicken Tikka dinner with dessert, a pot of tea and maybe some Indian wine.
I say a silent apology to Gandhi. I am out of Rupee portraits.
But I am going aboard.