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A weighty matter

india Updated: Jul 14, 2007 01:07 IST
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So, what’s the difference between an aeroplane aisle and a catwalk ramp? As you strap up in your claustrophobically small seat and wait for the customary delay on the tarmac, or whisper a not-so-silent prayer to slow down your thumping heart during a bad spell of turbulence, do you really care what the stewardess’ waist size is?

Up there among the clouds, is it sexiness you seek or safety?

These were some of the questions that Sheila Joshi, an airhostess suspended after 20 years of flying with Indian Airlines, demanded to know on a recent television debate. Joshi has been told she can get her job back if she sheds three kilos of extra weight and hits the new optimum benchmark set by the airline. Her appeal to contest a law she calls “an insult to her womanhood” has failed. Ruling in favour of the airlines, the judge, who also happens to be a woman, said grandly, “If by perseverance, the snail could reach the Ark, why can’t these worthy ladies stand on and turn the scale?”

In any other country, this would have snowballed into a major national debate. The attempt by Air India and Indian Airlines to look swanky, cool and young throws up so many different questions about gender and globalisation and how a changing India has begun to view itself. And yet, after the usual round of jibes and jokes about “jumbo jets” the subject has faded entirely from public attention.

Personally, I think there could not be a more telling example of how misplaced our notions of modernity have become.

True, agility and vitality should be pre-requisites for anyone who wants to fly. Flight attendants need to think on their feet and walk on their toes. An emergency landing can’t be steered by a pot-bellied cabin crew that crawls or belly-walks. If the airline industry were to evolve a common fitness standard for both male and female employees, that would not just be acceptable, it would be entirely desirable. So, by all means, get them all going on those treadmills and race them up and down a fleet of stairs, to check if they huff and puff more than they should. Most passengers would agree that health is a non-negotiable.

But isn’t this more about trying to be hip than fit?

Haven’t our national carriers been persuaded that buxom, middle-aged, sari-clad women simply can’t compete with the leggy, skinny, short-skirted babes that the private airliners are swarming with? Since when did svelte become synonymous with efficient? Just because beer-baron Vijay Mallya has successfully aped the flamboyance of Richard Branson, right down to the beauty queens on either arm, must every airline have a standardised notion of with-it-ness? And while we are on our obsession with the West, it’s worth pointing out that international airlines like British Airways still set their recruitment limit for employees between 19-54 years. Here, in India that number is brought down every year. In other words, if you are old, you are fuddy-duddy.

Joshi makes an interesting point about how India’s notion of beauty is fast becoming a facsimile from the West, one that subverts traditional notions of beauty and sets an anorexic benchmark for women to aspire to. But I think it’s as problematic to romanticise the Mother India image of the airhostess, as it is to look for eye candy on the aisle. Both smack of subliminal sexism. Instead, surely the argument is to ask why how you look should matter at all? How many times do you hear female passengers complain that the guy who muttered something about folding down tray tables and keeping your seat upright, was in fact bald and had a beer belly? The men who fly with Jet Airways and Kingfisher Airlines are younger and perhaps smarter to look at than the old-timers on our state-run carriers. And yet, the public scrutiny is always on the women.

Sample this comment from a reader writing in on the BBC website. "Honestly, I prefer flying the airlines with good looking air-hostesses. It makes flying less tedious,” says Sunil Reddy, an Indian who lives in New York.

<b1>This time, on paper at least, Air India and Indian Airlines cannot be accused of gender discrimination. The decision to ground overweight cabin crew applies just as stringently to the male employees as well. But, such is the entrenched association between beauty and women, and serving food and women that the debate seems to have forgotten about the men entirely. It’s significant that none of the airline employees who have petitioned the court against the new rule, are men.

Let’s remember that it was just four years ago, in 2003 that the centre had to oppose a Supreme Court ruling, in order to make the age limit for male and female cabin-crew the same (58 years.) In its order the court had held that retiring women at 50 (unlike their male counterparts) was not discriminatory. “A pleasing appearance, manners and physical fitness” were needed for crew of both sexes, said the court, leaving enough ambiguity for different yardsticks to be applied across the gender divide.

The equivalence being drawn between weight and worth has made the entire debate about performance a facetious one. Private airlines have not infiltrated the aviation industry because their cabin-crew is thinner or even better looking. The safety record of Air India and Indian Airlines is also pretty good. It’s not dowdy women who keep away passengers; it’s dowdy service. People care when service is sluggish and comes from an arrogance and complacency that often besets those who know they can never lose their jobs.

I don’t care if a flight attendant is fat as long as she doesn’t sneak back to the galley for a gossip when she should be pushing down the food trolley. I get annoyed when the food trays are slapped down on my seat by bored and disinterested men and women. I look for warmth and comfort, not cold efficiency. And I care more about an ageing fleet, than an ageing crew. I suspect, so does everyone else.

Oh, and by the way, did anyone notice that the much-loved airline mascot, the Air India Maharaja, has more than a bit of a belly?

Barkha Dutt is Managing Editor, NDTV 24x7.