Some brand new. Some worn and old. Some with ‘fragile’ tags stuck on them. Some a myriad of vivid colors. And some with funny stickers from different countries.
People traveling from one place to another by air, packing their prized possessions in bags and carting these bags around with them. What secrets could they be holding? What trials could they be facing? What joys and sadness could they be experiencing in their lives?
For Roy, every piece of luggage had a different story to tell.
For the last two decades of his life, he had been working as an airport baggage handler in Hyderabad. His days consisted of loading and unloading cargo. Sometimes on the tarmac, where baggage would be loaded on or off the aircraft ramp, sometimes in the bag room where checked luggage would be sorted, and sometimes just in front of the luggage pick-up belt, separated from the restless waiting passengers by a flapping rubber curtain.
Roy was a stoic worker, known to be quiet and dreamy. He was 50, unmarried, and living on his own in a rented one-bedroom apartment. Due to his benign personality and tolerant nature, his colleagues often pushed him to trade shifts, something he would do without complaint. It was not that he loved his job, it’s just that he didn’t have anything else to do.
Roy had one quirk which was that his pulse would rise when he would catch sight of a, particularly interesting-looking bag. It would inspire a certain story to weave around in his mind, on what kind of person owned the bag. Did he have a lover? Does she have children? Is he traveling to meet his long-lost grandpa? Is she running away from a stifling home? He would start his stories based on some small observation, a sticker from Egypt or a tag from Spain and while his hands worked automatically, his mind would be whirling in fantasies, elaborate adventures, and thriller mysteries.
For Roy, this job allowed an escape into a world where he could connect dots and make beautiful stories. The baggage belt was his pathway into this world.
On a particularly hot summer afternoon, Roy was hard at work on the tarmac unloading baggage off a Boeing 747 which had just gotten in from Mumbai. With droplets of sweat forming on his brow and the regulation shirt sticking to his back, his normally cool composure showed hints of irritation. After the loading was complete, he got into the trailer and made the short trip to the baggage belt dock. He hopped out and starting pulling out the bags, placing them onto the belt which rolled out to the passengers.
After all the bags were taken out, he did a double-take when he noticed a small red bag in the back, which had almost been overlooked. Mumbling, he got back into the trailer and grabbed the bag, intending to quickly shove it onto the belt. Something caught his eye however and made him pause. There was a white sticker on the bag. Normally, it would escape notice thanks to the overhead flap but his hasty hand movement had nudged the flap away. His eyes widened.
On the sticker was scrawled in a childish hand, “Hi, my name is Arya… what is your name?”
It was probably a child who was playing around with empty white stickers while her parents painstakingly packed their clothes. But instead of shrugging it away, he furtively glanced around. Noticing that no one was watching him, he quickly grabbed a pen from his pocket and scribbled. “My name is Roy. What do you do?”
This was like a needle in a haystack situation, him ever seeing this bag again. Even if he did, who knew if the note would even be there. It was a silly thing, a whim of a child which he went along with in a momentary impulse. But at least it would be some fodder for his imagination. Shrugging, he put the bag onto the belt, did a final customary check, and left the docking area. From then on, every red bag would catch his attention. His hand would surreptitiously brush its flap as if by accident and his eyes would check underneath. After some weeks, this became an involuntary action for him.
It was on a Wednesday, a month later. The brush of his hand on a particular red bag revealed another sticker with the same childish scrawl. There was a unicorn keychain hanging off the zipper.
“I go to school. I’m 6. I like unicorns which have puffy tails. What do you like Roy?”
His breath stopped. He couldn’t believe it. This child had found his note and answered it. It was like a game they were playing. Wouldn’t it be worth keeping this going till whenever it stopped? It was some excitement after all. At least a child could smile.
He wrote back, “I like sunsets over the ocean. And making up stories in my head”.
And so it started, a back and forth between two unlikely individuals, through the medium of the small red bag. Innocent exchanges about likes and dislikes, friends, food, movies, places to visit…stuff like that. But it would never be continuous. Sometimes Roy would find the bag and a note after a few months. Once, it was in the same week. But mostly, it was always quite a number of days apart. He concluded that whoever Arya was, she travelled often with her parents on the same route. He made note of whenever he found the bag, and it was all mostly between Hyderabad and Mumbai. He was very careful not to ask this in his notes. He didn’t want to pry into personal information and since she was very young, she would maybe not think twice to reveal things. Could be dangerous if someone else happened to find it. And so, he kept it light and simple.
This connection started becoming something precious, a warm glow in his heart. He even found himself more genial with his colleagues. No one would believe it was due to a simple exchange of notes with a child. No matter how many months went by, Roy was always in a state of anticipation. It was truly a miracle considering the next to impossible odds, but somehow, the bag would always appear in some trailer or on some belt. And an answering note would be there.
He never had an urge to place a face to the name. These notes and this connection were something he derived happiness and excitement from. In a life such as his, drab and routine, for the most part, it was a colored burst of joy. He felt that if he chanced a glimpse of this child, the thrill of this connection would be gone. So he consciously ignored passengers whenever he had to go through the airport. Which was very less, thanks to his job being out of view of the flying public.
Arya sometimes would talk about her feelings and he would give advice.
“I got angry because she took my pen. I don’t like her anymore”.
“Maybe she will give it back nicely if you ask her. Try being friends with her”.
“I miss my dad. He’s never home.”
“Send him a message saying you miss him. Hug him when he comes home”.
Sometimes she would say she wanted to meet him and give him something she liked.
“I want to meet and give you Harry Potter. It’s a good story.”
“It’s not easy to meet, but I’ll make sure to buy and read it.”
Sometimes she would echo his own feelings.
“This is so much fun. You’re my bag friend forever and ever”
“Thank you! I feel the same too.”
And sometimes she would ask about his family.
“I don’t have any brothers or sisters. Do you?”
“I have a younger brother. He’s abroad working as an engineer.”
She displayed an innocent interest in his life, which no one ever had. It made him feel special and made him consider his existence relevant. As he mattered, even if it was to a young child he had never met.
Roy always knew it would end someday. She could move cities, she could lose interest, her parents would find out and stop her, a million other reasons. He knew full well, but deep in his mind, he had already started to think of her as a father would a daughter. Having no one he could call close, he channeled all those feelings into this secret bond.
After five years, the notes finally stopped. Roy noticed when there was a gap of around 8 months after the last note, and beyond that, nothing. It was as he expected. But that didn’t stop the pain cutting through his chest like glass. One night, he found himself shedding tears alone in his room, a sense of having lost something precious. He prayed that this girl would be happy and safe in the future. That gave him some measure of comfort.
For a long time afterward, Roy was subdued. He no longer dreamt up stories. A stray bag here or there piqued his interest. But for the most part, that old excitement was gone. By now no one from his old colleagues remained, it was a completely new set of baggage handlers, a group who considered him a veteran and kept out of his way. Things went back to normal.
One thing he couldn’t stop though was the habit of of brushing back a flap on any red bag.
After a few more years, he eventually had to retire. The airport authorities, realizing that someone so old could eventually turn out a liability, graciously asked him to step down but not without a substantial retirement package, owing to his long years of service. They even gave him a plaque with his name and services inscribed.
When all the farewells had been done and his locker emptied, Roy made one last tour of his workplace. The bag belts, the sorting rooms, the docks, the tarmac. His eyes lingered on the bags that were coming in and the handlers rushing about. Loneliness engulfed him. This was his world, the world of baggage handlers, where each bag carried its own secret, its own story, its own message. He didn’t know how he would live apart from it.
He decided to leave from the main exit of the airport and plunged headlong into the rush of passengers, trolleys, announcements, gleaming floors and LED screens flashing with flight details.
A group of passengers rushed by him. He stepped aside to let them pass and started to walk ahead, towards the exit. Suddenly, he heard a woman’s voice, sharply ringing out.
“Arya, don’t dawdle, for heavens sake we’ll be late!”
He whirled around, wondering if he had misheard. It was a family of three – a mother, father, and a daughter. The daughter seemed to be in her mid-teens. She had her eyes glued to her smartphone, fingers scrolling, while she tried to keep up with her harassed parents. A minute later, she grinned and shoved her phone in her pocket, running to her mother’s side.
“Relax Mom, I’m right behind.”
Her dad gave her a playful punch and she returned it, squealing happily with laughter. Just before they disappeared into the crowd at the security check, Roy glimpsed her bag. It was purple but there was a keychain hanging off it. He squinted, trying to make out its shape.
With a jolt, he realized what it was. A unicorn with puffy tail. A faint memory came rushing back.
I’m 6. I like unicorns which have puffy tails.
Roy smiled and walked out the exit, his heart singing.
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