The Lounge10 mins 171 10 mins 171
Piyush Chawla flashed his boarding pass to the security guard at the airport entrance. It was noon – an hour and forty-five minutes for his flight to depart. He walked down the aisle, along the ticketing counters, in brisk, firm steps. He creased his forehead, avoiding as much as he could, the shoves and brushes of the hordes of boisterous passengers and haughty airlines staff on the way. He dragged his bag behind him, took the escalator and went towards the Oasis Airlines business lounge. He showed his boarding pass – this time to a smiling female staff member. She made a note in her register and greeted him in.
The Oasis Airlines lounge was an oasis of peace in the heart of the buzzing Mumbai airport. Piyush half-closed his eyes and breathed in, long and light. He imbibed everything about the lounge that he had been addicted to, over the past two months – the aroma, the shades, the soft, chequered lighting, the temperature adjusted to perfection, and the subtle music in the background. He walked towards one of the many unoccupied private spaces. He smirked, took off his jacket and hung it around a hanger and sank into the cosy, beige couch.
He felt that he was lucky to have had missed the BlueShift Airways flight to Kolkata one May afternoon, two months back. A BlueShift loyalist till that day, he had to book the next available flight, which happened to be an Oasis. And then, there was no looking back. It was love at first sight – the flight experience, the service, the food and above all, the lounge.
That day, he was in the lounge, all set to fly with Oasis for the fifth time in two months.
Piyush was elevated to head the pan-India operations at electronics giant, Rodgers, a year back. Since then, he flew two to three times every month, to Rodgers’ five regional offices. He usually took an afternoon flight, did a sales review at the office that evening and met dealers and B2B clients the next day.
Ever since his recent obsession with Oasis, he would arrive at the airport a little early to experience the serenity and luxury of the lounge, which came complimentary with his business class ticket. He used the time to prepare for his meeting, give last-minute touches to his presentations – or simply, relax. If time permitted, he would dig into the sumptuous buffet lunch, which also included a choice of wines. By the time he boarded his flight, his body and mind would be soaked in the opulence of the lounge. It left him charged up to take his meetings and issues head-on.
Piyush reviewed the numbers in his spreadsheet. Everything looked good for the rest of the day; and the next. He still had over an hour for the flight. It would be a sin to forego a quick, light lunch before he left for the security check.
He got up and went towards the buffet area. Despite the storms within him – numbers, issues, products and personnel – his exterior was a picture of poise. His deep, dark eyes emanated the curiosity of a teenager. His assured gait and athletic body made him look at least ten years younger than what he was. He smoothed his short, curly hair, folded his sleeves up to the elbows and set out to grab his share.
As always, the spread did not let him down – the colours, the aroma, the intrigue and the opulence. Piyush walked around the wares and settled on a couple of quick, exotic bites. He came back to his couch, plate in one hand and a glass of wine in the other.
He was engrossed in his meal. After a few minutes, a quaint, portly man occupied the private space adjacent to his. He dragged a travel bag with his left hand and pushed it into a corner. His other hand-carried his lunch plate, which he carefully placed on the centre table. The mild thuds and growls drew Piyush’s attention towards the man. Their eyes met. Piyush smiled. The man looked at him with his tiny, beady eyes and then looked away.
Piyush thought that the man’s cold reaction was weird. But, he let it be and continued with his indulgence. Once in a while, he felt that the man was looking at him – little, furtive glances. Once, he looked back, but the man was eating, unaffected.
“It’s one of those things,” thought Piyush. “My creepy imagination…”
He got up from his perch and walked out of the lounge...but not before he got one last glimpse of the man. It was strange. There was something about his creased, cratered face, shiny pate and white dangling moustache, that struck Piyush. He felt that they had met before – perhaps an old acquaintance, a neighbour? Did he meet him at the society library? He could not be from the running club, of course…
Piyush proceeded to the Security Check with a trail of such muddled thoughts – needless, but irresistible.
The following week was déjà vu. They met at the lounge again. Piyush felt that the man was trying to avoid him. “Perhaps he’s an introvert”, he thought.
But then, en route to Chennai after eight days, Piyush saw the man in the lounge again. Again, he was avoiding him and giving him those squinted glances in askance.
Six days after this, it was not too different. Piyush was baffled. This time, he decided to confront the man.
The man had a piece of grilled paneer stuck to his fork. He looked at Piyush and creased his forehead. His small, old eyes narrowed to form short straight lines. Not for a moment, did he enjoy the unwarranted interruption?
“Hi,” said Piyush. “My name is Piyush Chawla.”
The man nodded. He was still silent. His expression did not change.
“We’ve met each time I’ve travelled.” There was still no response. “Where are you going today?”
“Delhi.” The man looked away and continued digging into his grub.
“Oh,” said Piyush. “I’d gone to Delhi the last time.”
“I’d gone to Bangalore last week.”
He still looked down – appeared busy with his lunch.
“Okay then, have a safe flight.” Again, there was no reaction.
Piyush left him alone. There was no way he would know more about this man. He felt eerie. The man flew at about the same time as Piyush, to different cities, every time Piyush took a flight from Mumbai.
“This can’t be a mere coincidence,” he thought. “Is the man stalking me?”
He tried as hard as he could to recollect instances, when he may have encountered this man outside of the lounge. He did not have a clue. The veneer of poise that he wore on his visage, peeled off. The forty-six-year-old bachelor looked nervous as he set off to take his flight. He had millions of problems to handle – a dwindling market, disgruntled suppliers, an acrimonious trade union, hostile team members and forever unconvinced management.
“I’m sure, there’s something fishy,” he thought. “Has this guy been sent by the supplier, Naresh? I had a tiff with him a couple of months back.”
Piyush showed his boarding pass to the attendant and stood in line to board the flight. He was oblivious to his surroundings.
“It could also be someone sent by competition to track my moves. There’s no dearth of traitors within my team, to give them tip-offs on my travel plans and client visits.”
He shook his head in dismay and settled into his seat. The myriad thoughts left him stressed. He took only a few minutes to doze off.
Piyush’s trysts with the man left him worried. He felt that there was a pair of eyes, forever following him. He always looked around before handling classified information, making important calls and sending critical emails. He was cynical about even his core team and thought well about the consequences before disclosing sensitive information to his team members.
He was certain that he was the victim of a huge conspiracy hatched by his many detractors. He was puzzled about the genesis of the conspiracy and anxious about its outcome. He dreaded that he may lose contracts, get embroiled in scams, or worse…get killed.
For the first time since his unceremonious breakup fifteen years back, he felt lonely. Flashes of the episodes that led to the breakup, haunted him. He tried in vain to suppress these embers of the past. He longed for someone to confide in – to take advice from.
These unprecedented circumstances affected his career. Usually level-headed, he now, scowled at his team at the slightest provocation. He knew that he was losing control over himself. He did not want that to happen for too long.
Not travelling was not an option. A fleeting thought crossed his mind, whether he should take another airline the next time he travelled. Something in his subconscious mind made him decide against it.
The next time he travelled, he booked a later Oasis flight. But he arrived at the airport at the time he usually arrived. The man was present in the lounge, looking around – for someone or something.
Piyush’s task was cut out. He avoided the man’s line of sight with dexterity and followed him out of the lounge, leaving his bag behind. He walked behind him through the airport crowd, a good ten metres behind. He ensured that he was always out of the man’s sight, the two or three times that he turned around. The trail led him to the ticket counter, where at the distance that he was in, he could not make out what the man was doing. But after he was done at the ticket counter, Piyush saw the man go out of the airport.
Piyush was more perplexed than ever. He was, now, determined to track the conundrum to its end. The other items in his work and life took a temporary backseat. He could not wait to fly again.
In four days, Piyush was scheduled to fly to Delhi. Before he travelled, he reported the story to the Oasis officials.
Once again, Piyush was at the lounge. Yet again, there was the man.
“I can see him,” Piyush whispered on phone to the number that was given to him by the officials.
“Okay,” said the official. “We’ve traced you. Now just follow the guy wherever he goes. And be very careful; he shouldn’t see you.”
After a few minutes, the man looked around and walked to the ticket counter, Piyush followed him, like before, a few metres behind him. As soon as the man reached the counter, a couple of airlines personnel appeared out of thin air and accosted the man. From a distance, Piyush saw the three of them talking to each other. The lady at the ticket counter checked her screen time and again, and joined them in their conversation. Piyush went back to the lounge, curious.
After a few minutes, a tall, suave man with an airlines I-card walked towards him. A couple of women airlines officials walked slightly behind him.
“I apologise,” the man said, smiling. “May I take a couple of minutes?”
“Mr Chawla, thank you,” he said. “You helped us with this.”
Piyush sat agape. His face was a question mark.
“This man had bought a business class ticket last year. He would eat at the lounge every day, cancel his ticket and re-issue it for the next day. He had done this three hundred twenty-one times till yesterday. Our processes and protocol were not geared to detect this.”
Piyush sat stunned. His lips stretched for a smile. His mind had taken him to a dimension of interpretation that was so far away from the truth. He was disappointed at himself for being a spoilsport to the fun that this jobless, or possibly, a retired man was having. Perhaps it was more serious than fun; perhaps, this was just a means he had devised to fill his stomach. Or, perhaps, he wanted to experience a hitherto unfulfilled aspiration.
“Whatever it is...,” Piyush said aloud. “The man ate three hundred twenty-one meals in a business class lounge with the investment of just one business class ticket fare!” He attempted to console himself.
“Not even that,” said the man from the airlines. “The ticket was refundable. He claimed a full refund on the ticket.”
Free lunch exists, after all...in an airport lounge!