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Somnath Batabyal is a backpacking social theorist. When not travelling, he teaches at SOAS, University of London.

Home is where the writer’s heart is

Park Street in Kolkata.

Sometimes, staying in the dull, grey routinised life of London I worry about this column business every two weeks. What will I write about? It is the same walk to the office from my residence, which takes about 10 minutes. I shop at the same middle class shopping outlet called Waitrose where the aisles are wide and there are 17 varieties of morning cereals. We eat at specific times and try and be in bed early to go for a jog in the morning. Where is the material to write a column that has now been continuing for nearly five years? At times, I duck out.

This worry disappears the moment I land in India, either for a holiday or for research breaks, which happen three to four times a year. Material seems to leap at you from every corner, be it the moment I am reacquainted with Kolkata's Park Street or land up at our much cherished flat in Delhi's Shahpur Jat. The juicewallah will say something that throws up a chain of stories, the hierarchies of waiting at tables at Mocambo will spark another; my mother's closest companion and our house help brings in with her each morning news of a world I have grown distant from. India and its unpredictability sustain me as a researcher, a writer and a columnist.

So, it was with a sigh of relief, material getting thin, that I boarded the Air India flight that would get me home. I had written several columns on the chaos that this aviation company can cause and true to form, nothing has changed. I will refrain from details. Once we boarded, the usual mayhem of trying to put oversized cabin baggage in the overhead lockers began. Seriously, how did those suitcases get past the airline staff?!

Travelling with an infant is a delight in its own class and my extra anxious self got a solid bump in the head from a very tall man trying to push his briefcase in as I was attending to mine. I looked at him, a couple of heads taller than me. The man hadn't even noticed. So I decided to rub my forehead and castigate him. At least he should know, even if he doesn't care.

Unusually, the gentleman cared. He apologised profusely, not once, but several times and I had to say that it was all absolutely fine and he could bump me a few more times — just to make him feel better.

We both occupied aisle seats, next to each other. He was travelling with his young daughter while I had my wife and child. Very soon, the man and his young one were enveloped in a world of stories, he narrating, she giggling. I notice good parenting these days and my eyes kept averting to this happy duo.

India and its unpredictability sustain me as a researcher, a writer and a columnist. So, it was with a sigh of relief, material getting thin, that I boarded the Air India flight that would get me home.

In time, once dinner was served and consumed and the lights were dimmed, we started to chat. He was in London for work, his daughter accompanying him. He said he worked in government but did not elaborate. He asked about me and soon we seemed to have found a few acquaintances. We spoke about our city, about its politics and its future. He said that I should drop by when next in town to meet him. I asked him where I should come and he mentioned the police headquarters.

Ah, so he worked for the police. The man nodded. Being a former crime reporter, I couldn't help but enquire in which branch. The gentleman was strangely evasive. That he was from the IPS cadre I established quickly enough given that he knew most of the officers who were around when I was a cub reporter.

The conversation moved from policing to books and then to writers. It was as pleasant an airline conversation that I have ever had and when I tried to indicate that we should probably try and sleep, the gentleman took out a card, wrote down his mobile number and a personal email and handed it to me.

He was the Commissioner of Police of the city I was going to.

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