Air India Express IX 346 from Dubai landed before schedule at Kozhikode Airport.

Latif’s eyes scanned the passengers coming out of immigration. He did not care much for the passengers returning on paid vacation, those migrant workers who could hardly identify their baggage carousel.  So much for Kerala’s 100% literacy.

After fending away passengers asking for directions, he looked out for elderly passengers who might need his assistance. They were the ones who tipped him handsomely for the service, sometimes in kind, perfumes, luxury soaps, etc. He would trolley the baggage to the car park and arrange a taxi if requested. He had built a reliable network of taxi drivers during the course of his tenure in the arrival area for three years now.

Today, no one solicited his assistance, but he had one more official errand to complete before his shift ends. He had to collect the trolleys, arrange them telescopically and tow it inside the terminal. Latif was rolling the trolley train when he spotted someone lighting up a cigarette just outside the barricade at the arrival gate.

“Mashe, this is prohibited area, you should not smoke. Fine is 500 Rupees’ he warned as he carted in the trolley train. The lanky man in his late 50s looked uncertain before he took three more quick puffs and stubbed out the cigarette. He was peering inside as if he was expecting someone.

‘An incident-free day!’, Latif sighed when he swiped his fingers on the biometrics marking his duty for the day. Shamsu the CISF at the gate, nodded goodbye as he frisked Latif at the gate. Today was indeed “incident free:” He walked the short distance to his parking lot from the Arrivals gate.

As he walked to his motorcycle stand, he saw the man again, this time seated on the kerb. Maybe his guest was not yet out. Anyway, he could not care less. He was in a hurry to catch the game between Argentina and Nigeria at home, 13 kilometers away in Chemmad.  On his way, Latif stopped at the petty shop located at the intersection where the airport road joined highway.

Rafeeque, the shop owner, was already restless. “Latifka, please hurry up, the match has already started’

***

This was the fourth night that Latif encountered the lanky man at the arrival gate. He wondered if he was a cabbie but apparently not, for it was mandatory to wear a white coat and a badge for the taxi drivers at the airport.

The mobile buzzed in his pocket. Sulaiman’s friend has landed. IX 346 arrived before time. Air India services seems getting better, ironically when they wanted to sell it off. Latif darted to the Over Sized baggage delivery counter near the conveyor belt #3. The TV was 50 Inch and the fluorescent stickers were pasted all over the packing board. It was a Samsung XHD. Latif balanced it expertly on the trolley and wheeled out of the exit, passed the Green Channel and bidding a quick salaam at Shamsu at the gate. Mr. Nair, the customs supervisor seemed glued to the big screen that was playing the highlights of the game where Croatia upset Argentina. Latif didn’t even look. It was a rare defeat and was sure that Messi and co. will bounce back.

Latif wheeled the trolley to the Departure gate. Kozhikode had both departures and arrivals on same level. The Innova was waiting with engines with the headlights turned on. Latif carefully placed the TV on the back seat. The packing was good. It will survive the 13 Kilometre drive to Chemmad and the airport road was newly laid. The driver gave Sulaiman’s friend a new Boarding pass CCX to DXB by the return IX 345. “Hurry up, boarding has started” Latif murmured as he shook hands with Sulaiman’s friend. The reconnaissance run passed the test incident free. As the Innova sped away Latif didn’t fail to notice the package in the front seat that would be delivered at Rafeeque’s shop in next ten minutes.

Latif called Rafeeque. “Bhai, the game is on. I will log off duty and be with you in thirty. We can watch the game together at Shamsu’s place. He is on duty tonight and I have his room key. We will beat France tonight’, he said. During FIFA world cup matches, Chemmad citizens become Argentinians. With Germany making an early exit, their favourite team stood better chance this time despite the shock loss to Croatia and the mood was euphoric in this otherwise sober village.

***

Latif’s head was exploding. He didn’t sleep well. He was devastated. Argentina’s loss to France broke many hearts at Chemmad. The envelope was still lying on the table. Latif cursed the carelessness of Rafeeque. It was already noon. Rafeeque had already left and Latif wished he could take the day off, but today was appraisal day. He could not afford to miss it. The appraisal, which Latif thought went rather well. He was to continue in International arrivals, though it was a protocol to rotate the staff between International and Domestic section every three months.  His boss bailed him out saying that Latif was needed in the International Arrivals because of his fluent English to cater to International passengers.

***

It was another hectic day at the Airport. The baggage carousel area was chaotic. Outside the glass pane, Latif suddenly the lanky man swaying his head and peering inside. Latif decided to act now, beckoning Shamsu the CISF to come  along with him outside.

The man was startled when Latif caught hold of his wrist suddenly.

‘’What is it, Latifka ? Who is he?” Shamsu enquired.

“I see him every day at the arrivals gate. Today is the fifth day I see him. He just comes just before IX 346 lands, pretends as if he is waiting for someone, and leaves without a fuss. Looks like he is making surveillance of this airport.”

“Come with me, Mashe”, Shamsu ordered.

The agitated man begged him, “Saare, I have nothing to hide.”

Shamsu demanded, “Then what are you doing here. Show me your papers”

The Aadhar card read Ibrahim Sait Pudhiyaveetil and the address was at Mambram, close to the holy mosque.

“Saare, I am waiting for my son Wasim to come from Dubai. Every night, with hope’

Latif and Shamsu gave a quizzical look.

“My wife is very sick. I called him ten days ago and he said he would come immediately. For some reason, his mobile is switched off since then. I am hoping that he will come one of these days and at this point, the man broke down, ‘before Allah takes his mother away.’”

Latif mellowed down as the thought of losing his own mother a few years ago flooded him.

He called Shamsu aside and pleaded, “Sorry, brother. I think he is telling the truth. We should let him go?”

Shamsu, still suspicious, looked at the man and sighed. He then turned to Latif and said before leaving, “These days, you never know. Anyways, I will keep an eye on this guy”

***

“How bad is she?’ Latif enquired as he drove Ibrahim on his Pulsar to the highway.

“All Allah’s games, my son. Fatima requires a major surgery to remove a complicated tumour in her uterus’

“Cancer?’ Latif enquired

‘No, my son. Thankfully, it is not malignant. However, it is still life threatening and a major surgery must be done as soon as possible. It is very expensive for us. We are counting on Wasim.”

“Ibrahimka, you can call me Latif. I know how distressing it can be. I lost my mother to the dreaded CA two years ago. We spared no expenses for the treatments, surgery, chemo. But then, Allah had other plans’

“Oh, Sorry to hear about your Umma, Latifbai’ the man said

He continued, “I am a retired teacher. Used to work at an LP school. My son is the sole breadwinner now. My pension hardly amounts to anything”.

They were at the junction where the airport road met the highway. Rafeeque was waiting in front of petty shop in the corner. The shutter was down.

“Rafi, this is Ibrahimka. I met him at the airport. He has a sob story that I will tell you later. Now please can you wait here until Ibrahimka gets a bus to Mambram. I need to rush away on an errand’,

As Latif began to accelerate the motorcycle, Rafeeque called out, ‘Latifka, the cover’.

“Oops, I almost forgot. Thanks for reminding’, Latif said apologetically as he took the package from Rafi.

“Imported luxury soaps, the unofficial perks of working at International arrivals’’, Latif winked wryly at Ibrahim.

“Don’t worry, Ibrahimka. Khuda Hafiz” he added as he started his bike.

“Khuda Hafiz’ said Rafeeque and Ibrahim in unison as Latif rode away.

That night Latif tossed in his bed but sleep still seemed a big premium. He thought about his mother and his frantic search for money every time she fell sick, how each time he saw a pleading apology in his mother eyes when she had to be hospitalized.

***

Two days later, Air India Express IX 346 arrived on time. Latif darted to the Over Sized baggage delivery counter near the conveyor belt #3. He greeted Sulaiman silently. The TV was 50 Inch and the fluorescent stickers were pasted all over the packing. It was a Samsung XHD. Latif balanced it expertly on the trolley and wheeled out of the exit, passed the Green Channel and bidding a quick salaam at Shamsu at the gate. Mr. Nair, the customs supervisor was watching the replay of the Lukaku Goal.  

Sulaiman was texting on his mobile. At the Departures area the Innova was waiting with engines and headlights on. The driver opened the back door and Latif carefully placed the TV on the back seat. The driver gave a new boarding pass to Sulaiman. They embraced and departed in opposite directions.

***

Latif returned to the Airport to sign off duty only to find Ibrahim again, as forlorn as before, peering against the glass pane in the Arrivals area.  

Seeing Latif, Ibrahim Sait burst into tears and was sobbing inconsolably. “The Hospital has asked me to take her home, if we do not plan the surgery this week and Wasim didn’t come even today.”

Latiif’s heart melted. “Ibrahimka, wait for me, here”

He remembered today’s prayer at the Darul Huda Masjid

“And turn in repentance and in obedience with true Faith to your Lord and submit to Him, before the torment comes upon you, then you will not be helped.” (Quran 39:54)

***

Rafeeque was relieved to hear the noise of the approaching Pulsar. But Latif was not alone. Ibrahim Sait was on the pillion.

“The moron”, cursed Rafeeque. “What a time to have company!”

The Toyota parked on the grass path suddenly switched on the headlights. The driver greeted Latif again for the second time this night and handed over a cloth lined A4 sealed envelope. Rafeeque got in the passenger seat in front and the SUV swiftly turned towards the Calicut Road.

As the tail lights of the SUV vanished to the night, Latif turned to Ibrahim Sait.

‘Ibrahimka, Wasim didn’t come, but don’t worry, he is destined to come when his Umma is cured” he said to the confused man. As he placed the envelope into Ibrahim Sait’s palms, the serenity of a humid Kerala night was abruptly interrupted by screaming sirens of patrol cars that landed out of darkness.

***

The cameras at Chemmad Police station went overtime clicking the huge haul of gold bars packed inside a SONY LED TV frame. Ibrahim Sait had changed into uniform. Latif and Rafeeque struggled to mask their faces from the camera. The driver was on the run.  Shamsu was detained at airport and was being interrogated. Sulaiman was arrested by Dubai Police upon landing. More arrests were foreseen.

Latif turned approver. He now teaches languages in a Madrassa near Mambram. Ibrahim Sait was promoted to Assistant Director In Special Branch Kozhikode.

***

Shameera’s eyes scanned at the passengers arriving. This was the third consecutive visit to Karipur, the airport town from their mansion in Mambram. Today the kids also came. Nizar had called just before departure. She was so glad to see IX 346 on the display as “Arrived  22 40” instead of “Cancelled” as happened in last two days . The kids spotted Nizar first from outside and squealed in delight seeing their Abba after two years. As Nizar wheeled the loaded trolley , with the 50 inches XHD TV justting out precariously, an uniformed hand tapped his shoulder.

“ Sir, this way, please” extending his palm. “And your passport ” as Mr Nair led Nizar to the office behind Red Channel exit.

__________________________________________________________

Written by Ranjith Narayanan

Ranjit is an Engineer by profession, does a sales job that takes him to different corners of earth and those journeys make him pen down few words to lean away the boredom of constantly watching the lazy clouds outside the window of airplanes.