Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Art of Dealing with the Weather-George and Bowie

By T.P.Sreenivasan

This may be an apocryphal story, but worth recounting as the weather has turned the United States topsy turvy, with flights canceled, trains stranded, roads blocked, holiday plans scuttled and people put to endless misery. The most powerful and scientifically advanced nation bowed to mother nature.

The story is about the visit to Washington by the President of India, Dr.Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan at the time of President John F.Kennedy. The presidential helicopter landed on the White House lawns in torrential rain and the entire welcome ceremony was ruined. As President Radhakrishnan braved the rain and finally stepped into the White House, President Kennedy said: "Mr.President, I am sorry, we have not yet developed the science of controlling the weather." President Radhakrishnan did not miss the arrogance in that statement. "Don't worry, Mr.President," he said, "we in India mastered the art of dealing with the weather centuries ago."

The ancient Indian art of dealing with the weather came in handy this Christmas Day for us. Having complained that the Christmas was not white this year for the sake of my daughter-in-law, Sharavati, who preferred the cold New York to the warm Bali for a holiday, eight Sreenivasans set out for La Guardia airport, ready to fly out for Montego Bay via Atlanta. The Delta lines appeared thin for Christmas day and we congratulated ourselves for booking our flights after Christmas eve. Then came the shocker that all flights to Atlanta were canceled because of bad weather there and we should remain in line for alternate flights to Montego Bay. There were rumours that there was nothing wrong with the weather and that the Delta employees were on a slow down strike.

Of course, the Delta employee, with whom we spent the next hour, with children sleeping on chairs and all of us making various suggestions, was indeed slow, but helpful. She took a long time to locate the Sreenivasans, an Unnikrishnan and a Choksi and finally when she did, she decided to arbitrarily make us into pairs and send us in different directions such as Cincinnati, Colorado and Sacramento. When we wanted to make changes in the pairings, she adamantly refused, as though her computer would not accept such logic.But our persistence paid off and she found seats on a direct flight to Montego Bay from JFK, but not without insisting that she would book us only two at a time. As Roopa and Durga were the last pair ordained by the computer, they had to wait the longest.

As we were lounging in exhaustion in a corner, a huge African- American employee in Delta uniform walked towards us menacingly and we were ready for some stern advice about airport behaviour. We could barely make out his accent when he asked us: "What remains short even if we add anything to it?" Then only we realised he was trying to keep us amused with a riddle. We dont know, we said in consternation. "The word"short"!", he said triumphantly and walked off to the next group of weary passengers!

Having obtained the seats on a direct flight the next day, we started to deal with the situation. The first thing to remember was that Roopa's parents would arrive in the next hours expecting to have an empty apartment for themselves and they would have to cope with eight Sreenivasans for a night. But we had faith in their ability to put up with us just for a night. We gave them a surprise by not telling them the happy news that we would be there to receive them. The weather was still good, though there were predictions of a snow storm the next day afternoon. We said triumphantly that we would take off before the snow arrived and settled on inflated mattresses and convertible sofas.

We drove the next morning to JFK with the confidence that all of us had confirmed tickets. There were hardly any passengers to be seen and we thought we had a whole plane to ourselves. Armed with boarding passes, we breezed through immigration and security, feeling great that there was no pat-down on any of us except little Durga, who was given special treatment.

After two hours of joyful savouring of sandwiches and cofee and coconut water in anticipation of the tropics, we were invited to board and as we stood in line, we heard an announcement seeking volunteers to stay back and get a package of some Delta dollars, hotel room, food vouchers and taxi fares, together with confirmed booking in Business Class three days later. We joked that we could volunteer and stay back, but dismissed the thought immediately as we wanted to be together in the balmy Jamaica before the arrival of the snow storm in New york. We decided to help the airline by spreading the news of the offer to those in line, but no one obliged. Then came the surprises of surprises. Delta was seeking volunteers to find seats for us, Lekha, myself and a Jamaican lady, whom we had seen even on the previous day. There was only one seat for the three of us. We became the reluctant volunteers as both of us could not go and the Jamaican lady boarded with our children, who wished us a happy stay in New York as they bid a reluctant goodbye.

Delta kept the promise and gave us a handful of vouchers and sent us back home in a stately limousine to be received by smiling Unnikrishnans and snow flurries, which had begun to dance in the wind. Within hours, a snow storm, unprecedented since 1996, turned New york into a mountain of snow. We sent out the news on Facebook and Twitter to get an avalanche of messages and phone calls suggesting activities ranging from reading to honeymoon. We saw the power of social networking.

We too called our fellow KICian, Attorney Ram Cheerath,who, we heard, had already spent a day at JFK, not knowing when he would leave. Apparently, 'Etihad' had told him that their flight was on time and he took seven hours to get to the airport only to find that the counter was closed. He could not return home and he told us there was not enough food and water there to go round. We could give him nothing but a lot of sympathy.

Only one caller to us, Bowie, the wife of the musician, George Mathew, a close friend of Sree, who had visited us in Trivandrum a few months ago, said that she and her husband would like to come over with some food. Mathew, who had brought symphonic music to focus on global humanitarian issues,had raised funds for war victims in Darfur and flood victims in Pakistan. I had heard about his new project, "Beethoven for the Indus Valley."

I assured Bowie that we had stocked up food and that the Gristedes next door was still open. But she insisted on coming and I agreed, thinking that they would not be able to make it. But there they were, not only with a bag of chicken stew and material to make the Kerala specialty, puttu, but also a bundle of joy, their three months old son, Akbar, about whom we were not even aware!

They made puttu in our own kitchen and after a delightful meal, they walked into the pouring snow, not even sure of getting a cab. We could only pray that they reached home safely and they did. As we settled down to our snow prison term for the next three days, we wondered what prompted the Mathews to brave into the brutal weather outside with a little baby. The art of dealing with the weather was never on such splendid display! Bowie was not even born in India. She had learnt the Indian art from her husband.

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