Patna evokes a million memories.
The early ones are carefree, hotter than hell in the summer, teeth chattering cold in the winter. Time with friends in school and riding on the back of my brother’s electric blue moped is tinged with memories of crowded roads and a sea of humanity at every turn.
Five-odd decades ago, when my parents traveled by air, my brother and I would see them off from the side of the tarmac. In those impossibly simpler times, we waited for Ma to slip us a few rupees for a treat which my brother promptly served up after their departure.
I have no doubt these pristine airport memories shaped my own wanderlust.
Young adulthood shepherded my exit from Patna for exciting adventures in a faraway place. In the ensuing decades, Patna has remained on top of our family’s travel agenda.
By the 20-year milestone of leaving Patna, crowd size had been redefined by an order of magnitude. It took forever to go anywhere in a predictable amount of time and more people took to the skies. While the jets got bigger, the airport remained stuck in the black-and-white era. In other words, you have not experienced reverse thrust until you've landed in Patna. The runway is 400m shorter than it should be, Cat3 instrument landing is out of the question, and prayers go up in plentiful when the wheels hit the tarmac.
Between a congested city and an airport crying for help, the most urgent thought upon arrival is to visit family and exit quickly.
2021 marks the fortieth anniversary of my original departure. I returned this week on the first trip since the pandemic ravaged the world. Indians are a resilient bunch with incredibly high immunity. They have beat back the pandemic after the catastrophe with the Delta variant in the spring. It was no surprise that many airport passengers are now wearing masks more as a fashion accessory rather than protective gear. Maintaining social distance among jostling torsos at baggage claim is futile.
When I arrived in Patna, Baggage Claim 1 and 2 with the rickety overhead signs and the rhythmic thumping of a conveyor belt from a previous century brought back a distinct memory: my little guy being removed from a still belt by two stern and rifle-toting policemen. My son has PTSD from this, while yours truly thanks the men for bringing discipline when she failed.
That was 1997, and even then, how I wished for modernization to descend on the airport!
Fast forward to December 8th, 2021.
As I departed from Patna, unexpected progress caught me by surprise. I don’t mean garden-variety surprise. I mean whiplash-inducing surprise. A new 700,000 sq ft terminal is in the works while the current one is getting an emergency makeover.
A virtual orchestra crescendo-ed in my head from the sheer delight.
Numerous check-in lines eliminate the battle of the trolleys led by battalions of me-first passengers. The multi-line security area is spacious and brightly lit with suited gents at the helm checking boarding documents and expertly routing passengers.
The anxiety attack of leaving my carry-ons on the puny conveyor belt of yore and having the contents pile up sky high at the other end and the fear of having someone walking off with my bags instantly disappeared into ether. I cleared security just as my bags exited the x-ray machine. Like wanting to hop back on a thrilling roller coaster, I wondered if I could go through security again!!
Most importantly, news of an extended runway and Cat3 ILS bring a monumental sigh of relief not just to us occasional visitors but to frequent flyers, like my brother, for whom the airport is a lifeline.
To the executives, managers and staff who are guiding the transformation of Patna airport: kudos to you! The airport’s shift to the 21st century is long overdue. While you continue your good work, know that this native is grateful for the initiative, thankful for the progress, and relieved to see Patna joining the ranks of other cities that have invested in airport infrastructure because each arrival should be a gateway to history and each departure a longing for the return.
This particular airport is the gateway to Pataliputra - the city with a glorious past dating back to 490 BCE - and its contemporary sibling, Patna, that will continue to hold my roots tight.
I depart with optimism that my sepia-infused airport memories from half-century ago will reemerge in vibrant colors by the time I come back next.
Ajatshatru, the Magadh king who established Pataliputra, would be so proud.