To coincide with our current exhibition Terminal, we invited five writers to deliver requiems for an airport. Of course, the event was postponed due to Covid-19, but it finally happened at our Tuatara Open Late in December. Better late than never. Today on the blog we share Rajorshi Chakraborti’s requiem.
The Parallax View is a 1974 political thriller starring Warren Beatty. When I first saw it, I hadn’t yet been to New Zealand. I didn’t know that at Christchurch and Nelson airports, just to name two examples, you could arrive minutes before certain domestic flights, run through the terminal and onto the tarmac, and board, if you don’t have anything to check in. Which is why, when Beatty’s character does precisely this in the movie, I had to pause, go back, and replay the sequence. I had never seen anything like it!
The movie, and that era, go even further. The character runs on board exactly as you would on a bus, finds himself a seat, and the flight takes off. Only when they are at cruising altitude, if I remember rightly, does one of the flight attendants assume a second role as a ticket conductor, and all the passengers buy tickets off her! From their seats! In mid-air! Now you see why, in 2002 or 2003, as a twenty-five-year old, I had to watch that sequence a second time to believe it!
There’s a layer of irony in the fact that the movie is all about political paranoia and yet this sort of flying was still possible even in the early 1970s, when airplane hijackings were very much a thing. And the reason it was especially striking to me, as an Indian, is that for most of my life, at airports back home, we’ve had the diametrically opposite experience. In India, because of security worries, if you’re not actually boarding a flight, you’re not allowed into the terminal building! Not to see people off or to receive them—all that happens outside! Which is why my parents felt vaguely like people getting away with something criminal as they boarded a flight to Wellington from Christchurch some years back on their first visit to New Zealand, out of sheer disbelief that they were being allowed onto a plane without a security check. Or the ho-hum fact that, if you feel like a good bagel and you’re in Kilbirnie or Miramar, you can just pop along to the airport and treat its lounge like a food court. Your parking will cost as much as your bagel, but that’s your call.
Of course, in most airports around the world, most people don’t whizz through the building on fairy dust and trust alone. You know how—for any new technology that appears—porn and the military will be the first to try out if it’s going to be of any use to them. Well, airports occupy a similar cutting edge when it comes to any kind of invasive technology, anything that promises the lowdown on what we are carrying, on our persons, in our bags, and inside our bodies in this year of the pandemic—from thermal imaging to temperature scans to body X-rays to sniffer dogs that, at Heathrow, are even trained to detect suspiciously large amounts of currency notes in people’s bags (because London is one of the world’s money-laundering capitals). You can be sure that, if mind-reading technology or reliable emotion scanning ever become a thing, you’ll encounter them first at an airport!
And, as well, being from India but having also had the opportunity to carry another passport, I’ve experienced both ends of the promise of an airport— as a portal to free movement and limitless discovery, but only for some. As an Indian citizen, I’ve had to supply salary statements, a letter from my employer, hotel reservations, everything short of a chest X–ray, in order to establish that I wouldn’t overstay a long weekend in France while visiting from the UK, or, still more absurdly, slip out of an Australian transit lounge on the way to somewhere else! While, just a few years later, travelling in Europe on a New Zealand passport, I was waved through with a three- month leave to remain with barely a glance at my photo, despite being the same brown face with the same back story. In Australia, I didn’t even encounter a human being on my way to entering the country. So, airports are all that as well, as this exhibition powerfully evokes—sites that emphasise, often in humiliating public view, that, when it comes to opportunity, dignity, and trust, we are far from equal.
And yet, there are other sides, besides the invasions of dignity, the exposed inequalities, that explain why so many of us endure them. My father and I had this thing in common—we both had the opportunity to study in faraway schools in our teens. In my father’s case, the journey was even longer, over seventy-two hours if everything ran on time, involving four rail journeys on two different gauges of track, as well as ferry crossings across two rivers over which rail bridges hadn’t yet been built. He was travelling, in 1961 as a fourteen-year old, from his small hometown in Assam to a school on the outskirts of Calcutta in the neighbouring state of Bengal. I, at sixteen, left India, to complete my schooling on Vancouver Island, off the west coast of Canada—a thirty-six-hour journey when everything ran to schedule. It has always blown my mind, that, de facto, my father was twice as far away from home in his time as I was, even though I was literally halfway around the world. The difference, of course, is airports and flying.
One Sunday morning, at the waterfront market here in Wellington, my daughter and I counted stalls serving foods from seventeen distinct cultures. It moves me to think how all that too is enabled by airports and flying. Of course, people had the courage to begin new lives in unknown places long before the aeroplane age, but it’s a possibility open to many more of us now, with wonderful, enriching consequences all around the world. Migration, for most of us, isn’t the unimaginable, lifelong pain that people would have felt, for example, during the ‘American wakes’ that used to be organised in Ireland in the nineteenth century to farewell emigrating relatives you didn’t expect to see again. For someone like me, to have made a second home without having to permanently give up the first, was only made possible by planes.
Everything has many meanings, many ripples. On the one hand, I completely get the urgency of the concerns around flying as a sustainable activity, especially in the era of $2 to $10 flights in certain parts of the world, which are really nothing more than a collective bird we’re flipping to every other species on the planet. On the other, flying when I need to and occasionally as a luxury, hopefully one day with more sustainable fuels, is perhaps the single staple of modern life I would find hardest to give up. I’d like to think it isn’t just because I’m unremittingly uncaring in my self- and anthropo-centredness. A world that isn’t connected by flying would certainly be cleaner and many ecosystems would start to heal. But, simultaneously, one of my fears is that, in such a world, we would be living in diminished human ecosystems, amid far less varied and colourful human reefs, that, as an unintended consequence, are perhaps more likely to be dominated by those nativist predators in each society who seek to persuade us that we’re only like people who look like us.
And so, I confess that I long to be in an airport once again whenever it is safely possible. Aware of my privileges and their consequences, but flying, with guilt in my heart towards all other species, for experiences that Zoom, Google Maps, and YouTube cannot provide.
Rajorshi Chakraborti is an Indian-born, Wellington-based writer. He is the author of six novels and a collection of short fiction. His latest novel, Shakti, was published by Penguin Random House in February.