Don’t worry, said Manoj, I’m here. I’m here to serve. It’s what I’ve done through the pandemic. Serve senior citizens.
Sometimes when you want get something done, it’s the people you know. We all know how that works. Something goes wrong and you pull up your phone book or you discover someone’s someone knows the right person. It’s not that these important someone’s someone can always help. They can try to, they can “put in a word” but let’s be honest, being asked for too many favours too often does put people, and I mean all of us here, off.
But sometimes, it’s the more wonderful thing that happens. Help from unexpected quarters. Or from those not seen as “important” but are in fact far more significant in keeping the wheels turning than the big person in a fancy suit somewhere high up there.
Manoj was one of those people, one of the many we met in a short but harrowing journey from India to England this week.
We had a family visit planned to England two years ago. The pandemic put paid to that as it did to so many hopes and dreams and for some with horrific consequences.
Ours were not so bad. There was family to see, a wedding to attend and for my Father, 83, to meet his Brother, 88. Locked up for most of the pandemic, we had been spared the tragedy and horror that so badly affected so many across the planet.
Travelling in a pandemic though sucks out almost every aspect of pleasure the experience might have once had. Danger and the fear of danger hang in the air. Even before you leave, the preparations are more frenetic. The visa process, the questions, the forms, the Covid 19 tests, the waiting, the uncertainty. In asking for help in a random social media manner, help came from unexpected quarters.
From former colleagues and contacts from work world almost in another universe. They went out of their way to track progress and keep in touch with updates until the work was done. No simple thank yous are enough.
But Manoj wasn’t in this category of person, someone you once knew or someone’s important someone. Manoj is one of the wheelchair attendants at Delhi airport. But thanks to Manoj, what would have been a traumatic wait, full of tension and bureaucracy and the tedium of travel when all you have to do is get onto an aeroplane, not chase hippos from across African rivers into Columbia, became plain sailing.
Thanks to Manoj, we whizzed through heightened security, long queues, confusing officialese and the mind fog that descends after 2 am without sleep and comfort. Manoj had said goodbye to us three hours earlier, but there he was back at half past two, with his efficiency and cheer. It is people like Manoj who are the cogs that keep the system together as someone pointed out.
But people like Manoj are more than that. They are the pleasures that remind us that being human is almost an art. A peon in a dusty government office is a vital cog in the wheel because he knows what the babus don’t, because he’s been there forever as babus have come and gone and because not all babus can be bothered. But that peon usually needs something to place under every paperweight in the chain of babus above him and he himself often won’t even function without that initial funding. Manoj is not a cog in the same sense. He’s the joy.
Like the cabin crew of a Jet Airways flight four years ago. When they heard that my Father was travelling with his two daughters, they had a little impromptu party for us in their service area. They cut a cake and sang. There was no need to do it. But they did.
We will never forget it. And we still mourn the loss of an airline which provided the best service. Those who gave Jet its coveted status – its staff – are those who have suffered the most after the airline shut down. Capitalism works hard to build its capital and then forgets that all businesses have something to do with people. Profits, balance sheets, accountants and numbers are all very well. But without people what do they mean?
But I digress. As the flight ended, with more anxiety to follow – have you filled all the forms in correctly, what about all those stories about Brexit and massive queues, and all the frightening signages everywhere that the British are so fond of and good at.
Instead, although the lines were long, the wheelchair service at Heathrow was almost as good as Delhi, from the human angle anyway. Although I was a bit upset that all those complicated forms we had filled in and all the tests we had done, no one looked at them except the Air India staff!
In the airport terminal, from the helpful young woman who helped us with SIM cards to the woman who booked the taxi we suddenly decided to take making sure she got us the best rate, it was the people who took the tiredness out of travelling long journeys.
It’s the Manojes that make you smile and remember at the end. And you know, with his mask on all the time, we never really saw his face at all.
But his kindness and generosity would be recognisable anywhere.