An Officer and a Gentleman
Stranded in a foreign land with lapsed documents and a cancelled flight, the only way out was a miracle.
IN JANUARY 1986, Professor Ramachandran Nair, my father-in-law, was returning to India via London, after being on a deputation in Algeria for about five years. He was posted at the Mouloud Mammeri University of Tizi-Ouzou, teaching post-doctoral students chemistry as part of the government-sponsored Indo-Algerian accord.
The socialist country had strict emigration rules that required an exit visa before leaving the country. Nair, in possession of all the required documents, had a confirmed ticket to London, the first leg of his journey. However, there was an unexpected development. A wildcat strike by air traffic controllers in France the day before had prompted the cancellation of most flights to Europe and London. Increasingly, it looked like his trip to the airport would be in vain-he had to rebook his flight, and, to add to the horror, he was 14th on the waiting list.
The next day, Nair arrived at Algiers International Airport well ahead of the departure time, but the check-in counter was eerily quiet. His worst fears were confirmed when he was told that there was no change in the waiting list, which meant he had no chance of making it to London that day. A logistical crisis loomed large-to gather his wits, Nair decided to go and have a cup of coffee.
At the coffee shop, the enormity of his predicament finally hit him with full force as he realized, with a growing sense of despair, that nothing short of a miracle could help him. He had surrendered his residence card, as required, and his house had been handed over to the housing authority at the university. He had very little money because his account at the domestic bank had been closed, and, most importantly, he needed to leave Algeria before the grace period ended. The professor was deep in thought when a tall, handsome Algerian stopped by his table.
'Hello. Do you recognize me, professor?'
'No, not really,' the professor said with an apologetic smile as he snapped back to reality.
'You may not recognize me but I know you. You've given me a ride in your car a few times.'
'Oh, yes. The police officer,' the professor exclaimed as he recognized the plain-clothes policeman.
'Taking a flight out, professor?' 'Well, I was scheduled to fly to London today, but I am low on the waiting list and don't stand a chance,' he said, blurting out the whole story to the man. The police officer listened keenly and when the professor had finished speaking, he said, 'Give me your passport and ticket-let me try.'
Desperate for a way out, the professor handed over his passport and ticket, and the man disappeared into the crowd. Precious minutes ticked by as the anxious gentleman waited for the officer to return. Forty minutes passed and there was still no sign of him.
My father-in-law realized he had handed over his passport and ticket to a near stranger, someone who was barely an acquaintance, and there was no way of contacting him. Remember, there were no mobile phones in 1986. There was little he could do by way of constructive action. So he waited, sweated and prayed.
After what seemed like an eternity, the mightily relieved professor saw the tall figure of the police officer approaching him from a distance. But what was it? The man was smiling a big smile. Did that mean good news? But how on earth was it possible? The professor's mind raced with these questions as the man pulled up a chair at the table and sat down.
'Here you go, sir. Your passport and boarding pass.' The police officer sounded pleased as he said this, the professor noted.
'But how? I was told I had no chance.' The professor was incredulous.
'It was difficult, but in the end they all agreed,' he said, avoiding an explanation.
'I don't follow you. How did you manage it?" the professor wanted to know.
"I'll tell you all about it. But there are some people I want you to meet first.'
'Sure, anything you say,' said the professor, as the two made their way, once more, towards the check-in area.
A short while later, the professor was safely on board the aircraft, and as he fastened his seat belt, he had a moment to think back to the events that transpired.
Did the officer pull rank and coerce the ticketing staff into giving him a seat? Was a bribe offered to expedite matters? While these are pretty common occurrences in many countries, what happened at the Algiers airport was quite unique.
With a barely concealed smile, the professor reflected on the words of the police officer, '… and so, you see, I approached all 13 passengers on the waiting list and explained your predicament, and they all willingly offered to step aside and let you have the flight seat on priority.' The police officer introduced him to the 13 people-some families, some individual passengers -all of whom had dropped out of the line to make way for him.