In search of chai, and India

It began at Mumbai’s domestic airport itself. Keen to sample cutting chai, which, according to the signboard, would be served in a clay pot (kullad), I approached the counter, only to be told by the attendant that they had run out of it (this, in the evening) and one would have to wait for an hour, at least, until the tea - arguably the most easily available beverage in India - would arrive at the kiosk. We settled for instant whatever.

Looking around, there was very little trace of any Indian, let alone Maharashtrian or Mumbai, connect at the airport as far as food went, barring a tiny section that sold Chitale’s bakarwadi and Mapro’s famed strawberry jams. I managed a half smile. As we strolled around the retail section in the departure zone, we were hoping to find the odd Warli painting or artifact as a souvenir to pick for friends in another city. Sigh. No trace whatsoever. Even the bookstore didn’t sport a separate section on Mumbai and the home state. This reality - or the lack of it - was on display in one of India’s largest airports, where passenger traffic is among the highest. A golden opportunity lost to showcase and highlight the rich history and culture of the city and state.

As we boarded our flight, there was very little of ‘India’ on display. It disappointed us to note that the teabag brand for our cuppa came from neighbouring Sri Lanka. The packaged eats, too, were mostly Western-inspired, while the samosa appeared as a soggy afterthought, and best left alone.

When we reached our destination, Kochi airport, the lack of local flavours continued. We were pretty sure that Kerala would get it right - what with their strong tourism policy et al. Yet, as we waited for a good 20 minutes until our pick-up arrived, we scanned the waiting lounge to discover that there was nothing to catch the eye; forget about introducing the first-timer or the curious to the wonders of the state. In fact, despite it being 9 pm, most of the establishments within the lounge had shut for the day.

On our return, too, the departure and arrival lounges at Mumbai and Kochi didn’t exactly flatter. Except for an Ayurveda store and another that sold umbrellas, there was no stamp of Kerala in any of the other outlets. And, as we touched down in Mumbai, it could have been any other soul-less destination on the map. There was no indicator to tell the visitor that we were in the Maximum City. Except the honking cars and touts outside the airport, of course.

Even as our Prime Minister tries his best to woo the global investor to ‘Make in India’, our airports need to do much more to grab the attention of the tourist - domestic or international - to showcase all things regional and Indian as they enter our boundaries and move around the country . Surely, we can do better than machine-made cappuccino and Taj Mahal key chains.

The writer is Features Editor of mid-day

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