It took a desperate call from my mother asking me to come home from Mumbai that finally shattered my confidence in continuing to put up in a place which was a declared red and the COVID-19 cases only kept multiplying. Panic gripped my parents back home in West Bengal's Hasimara as the constant statistics of rising cases in Mumbai only fuelled their fear and they wanted me out of the city at any cost. That I stay in Worli, one of the highly affected zones of the city, only made their decision resolute.
But travelling in the time of pandemic is no easy task. The very thought of dealing with bundle of paperwork, navigating through conflicting information, purchasing a ticket that costs a bomb, arranging for a vehicle when taxis are off the roads, downloading Aarogya Setu, observing health precautions suddenly made this travel plan a project.
As if COVID-19 was not enough, Cyclone Amphan that hit Odisha and West Bengal only threw in another set of challenges. But that's not it. With the Centre issuing the directive to restart flight operations from 25 May amid resistance from the state governments, instances of which have been witnessed in West Bengal and Maharashtra, a confusion over guidelines and formalities prevailed among people.
Then there was an epidemic of random flight cancellations. One may have a ticket and no one could be sure if they are flying at all. Unreachable customer care of airlines, lack of information from their side only made the uncertainty worse.
Now as I write this piece cocooned in the peace of parental care under home quarantine in one of the tea estates of the north Bengal's famous DOOARS region, the journey relives in me in vivid cinematic memory.
Undoubtedly everyone right now is dealing with some sort of gloom but, a peculiar feeling sets in when you are living in a containment zone in Mumbai, stuck within the four-walled rented apartment and following a set routine with almost nothing new to look forward to " not even binging on new web series or a slow-burner supernatural thriller or even a psychological suspense novel can make you forgetful of being trapped.
The daily count of coronavirus cases nationwide continues to rise while there's no change in the level of mental, physical and emotional exhaustion. You wonder what next from here.
For me, there was a dire need to see familiar faces and collapse in the bed at my parents'. They stay amid the greens in a tea estate in north Bengal, which has its added perks. So, one can sense the desperation in this famished soul, trying to make amends with the once-busy and now empty streets of Worli, where I was surrounded with COVID-19 cases left, right and centre.
For starters, on 22 May I checked with the Mumbai Police to confirm if air travellers would require an e-pass to reach the airport. To my disappointment, they were as clueless as I was with some officials even saying that there was no confirmation on flight resumption yet.
However, after speaking to a few journalists who cover the aviation sector, there was some relief about flight operation from 25 May. They further instructed to carry a doctor clearance certificate to ascertain that I was safe to travel.
Work did not end here. Since I was about to travel to a remote green zone in Alipurduar district in West Bengal, my travel plan was needed to be reported to the Block Medical Officer of Health (BMOH).
Learning about my travel history from Mumbai, the BMOH of Kalchini in Alipurduar, alerted the district surveillance team. According to the nodal officer of my tea estate, Dr C Bhattacharya, I would have to stay in Subhasini institutional quarantine centre in Kalchini area.
Subhasini institutional quarantine centre in Kalchini area, Alipurduar district. Sukanya Ray/Firstpost
After following this procedure, I bestowed full trust on the Ministry of Home Affairs order and booked my flight for 25 May to Bagdogra in West Bengal. But there had to be some kind of impediment I believe and a just day before I could start my journey home, the Maharashtra government opposed Centre's call to resume flights.
The end result of the bitter squabble between the Centre and state was difficult to predict from Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray's press briefing on 24 May, when he stated that the Centre made an 'arbitrary' decision allow domestic flight operations.
However, I did not let the afternoon presser dampen my spirit and hoped I would reach home anyway. But then came in another obstacle.
The Mamata Banerjee-led West Bengal government "urged" the Centre to stall the air traffic in the state for three more days owing to the destruction caused by cyclone Amphan. My anger aggravated at the sluggish attitude with which Mamata responded to this decision.
Without underestimating the veracity of the devastation, she could have conveyed this response to the Centre two days ago before so many people in earnestness had booked tickets to return home. I still held my calm when the airline cancelled my flight at 12 am on 25 May. It was not just the hard-earned money that was wasted but the little mental harmony that we were all trying to hold on to.
I was adamant to resume work and not book any further flights until mid-June but finally gave in to mother's cajoling over the phone. This time around, to be on the safer side, I booked a SpiceJet flight for 29 May, a day after from when air operations would resume in Bengal.
I asked my company to arrange a car for me to the airport and the help was invaluable.
Documents kept me on tenterhooks:
Since I was flying alone, in the unusual circumstances this time, I was apprehensive of what all documents I might be asked to present to the airport authorities. None of the airlines or even the state governments had made it unambiguous for the fliers so, to be extra cautious I made photocopies of all the essential id-proofs " from Aadhaar to PAN card.
But there is no requirement to bring in complexities when there's an undeniable urgency to meet your kins. All that you'll be needing is a copy of your boarding pass (mobile format also acceptable) and authorised identity proof.
I was in no mood to miss my flight and took off for the airport very early. The general hustle-bustle being replaced by a muted atmosphere can be a little intimidating, especially if you reach the airport at 4.30 am! Before that, there was the dress drill. Armed with an N-95 mask to repel any virus attack and donning highly uncomfortable latex gloves, I was determined to keep COVID-19 at bay. I received an extra set of self-protective gear when the airlines gave me a safety kit, comprising a hand sanitizer, mask and a face shield.
I also had to attach a baggage tag/label to my check-in luggage (which shouldn't weigh beyond 15 kg, although airlines like the SpiceJet has set a limit of 20 kg per person), unlike earlier times.
File image of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport. Sukanya Ray/Firstpost
I had done a photocopy of the tags which I got during the web check-in process which also contained details like name, PNR number, flight number, origin, destination and the date of travel. However, one can also stick a hand-written label as per the format provided to your luggage.
Upon arrival at the airport, a green status on the Aarogya Setu app is essential. A temperature check was done before I entered the terminal building which was followed by the CISF staff checking my identity card and the boarding pass at the entry gate.
Soon after I headed directly to the Spice Jet check-in desks and deposited my luggage at the designated area. Yes, there were other passengers too and social distancing was key for the safety of all.
The process here is fairly simple and wasn't devoid of the usual practice. Passengers were asked to place objects like mobile phones, laptops, belts, electrical equipment, as well as coats, jackets, scarves in the baskets provided and put them on the conveyer belt.
At Mumbai International airport, the CISF personnel did not conduct a body scan, however, at the Kempegowda International Airport in Bengaluru (I had a connecting flight to Bagdogra), body scanners were used by the security staff.
Once I cleared the security I went to the airport lounge where passengers were seated leaving one seat vacant between each of them. The seats marked with a cross meant one is not allowed to use them. It is advisable to use the restrooms at the airport to avoid visiting one at the aircraft considering the lavatories will be compact inside the plane. However, it is always good to avoid it although I had to use it in Mumbai considering the duration of the journey I had ahead of me. A good thing was since it was early in the morning the loos were relatively cleaner, may I add safer to use.
Boarding the plane:
Boarding was a time-consuming process as the airport staff allowed a set of 10 passengers to board the plane at a time.
At the boarding gate, passengers collected the safety kit from the airlines executives after self-scanning their boarding passes. In order to minimise crowding at the gate area, airlines also spaced out the distance between passengers on aerobridges. Social distancing norm was maintained in a similar way as it was at the airport lounge area.
Inside the plane, no food or beverage consumption were allowed. So, fill your appetite before boarding your flight. At the airport premises, selective restaurants and cafes are functional. Holding onto to my anxiety, I had took solace only in the morning cup of tea in an empty food court area.
Once seated, it is advisable to avoid getting up until arrival and avoid using lavatories, unless absolutely necessary. It was almost claustrophobia after putting on all those essentials " face mask and shield and those latex gloves " but it felt better to sleep off those palpitations and rather dream of homecoming.
If you have a connecting flight:
Deplaning is less cumbersome but face masks, gloves and face shields and social distance never went off the protocol. Since I had a connecting flight from Mumbai to Bengaluru before arriving at Bagdogra, there were certain procedures I was needed to follow. A queue was formed at the Kempegowda International Airport for passengers who had to change the aircraft.
A temperature scan was conducted upon arrival, followed by a security check-in. The drill was similar to what was followed in Mumbai.
After I landed at Bagdogra, the airport staff first sprayed disinfectants on my cabin baggage and told me to sanitise my hands. It was followed by a submission of a 'self-declaration form' where I provided the details of my travel and my local address.
The authorities will again scan your temperature and the reading must be included in the self-declaration form. On submission, I was provided with a notice of guidelines for home isolation with a declaration of 'normal' temperature stamp under health department of Darjeeling district, West Bengal.
This was the procedure followed at the Bagdogra airport, however in Kolkata, I am told travellers did not receive such forms.
All people, particularly coming from five high caseload states like Maharashtra, Delhi, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, were permitted to home quarantine, only if they show no symptoms of the viral disease.
However, initially, it was advised that all persons coming from the above-mentioned states will be taken for institutional quarantine, as far as possible close to their residence, for 14 days.
With the gradual easing of lockdown restrictions, the West Bengal government is now allowing passengers with instruction for 14 days strict self-isolation at home. However, the health status of the traveller must be conveyed to the District Surveillance Officer by the surveillance teams.
In my case, I travelled from Mumbai to Bagdogra. My travel plan was notified to the Block Medical officer of Health (BMOH), Kalchini block.
Before I began my travel to Kalchini, my COVID-19 test was conducted at the North Bengal Medical College, Siliguri, under the direction of Dr Arunavo Sarkar, Head of the Department of Microbiology and Principal Investigator of Viral Research.
Initially, on Karmakar's suggestion, I was prescribed to quarantine in an institutional centre in Kalchini area. However, after testing negative for COVID-19, I was permitted home isolation.
On 30 May, an Asha worker, Bandhana Banerjee and Health Assistant Female (HAF) Lipika Das Chowdhury, came to my residence to inquire about my health and details of my stay and surroundings in Mumbai. These kinds of visits can be expected for a few more days since I travelled from a red zone to a remote green zone area.
Meanwhile, in few districts, a strictness to abide by a clinical protocol of 14-day institutional quarantine was witnessed, owing to a sudden spike in COVID-19 cases.
Like in Coochbehar district, in the northern part of West Bengal, the authorities have made it mandatory for people arriving from high-risk areas like Mumbai, to stay in a COVID care centre for at least 14 days or less and be released after testing negative for the novel coronavirus.
Having said that, in Kolkata, air passengers travelling from Mumbai, have been exempted from institutional quarantine. From my experience, it's not the air travel that must make one apprehensive to return to their home states. The airlines have made the entire process hassle-free at the airports but clarity from the state governments for returnees about home isolation or institutional quarantine is much-needed.
Nevertheless, as I wrap up my unique pandemic travelogue I could hear the humming sound of the tea factory not too far away from the bungalow I stay, workers plucking lush green tea leaves and await the visit of the Auxiliary Nurse Midwifery head of Malangi gram panchayat under Kalchini block who will come to check on my health status.