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Size of his byline

Air-India was in the news twice this week First, the Minister for Civil Aviation unilaterally stated that our international carrier was no longer up for grabs

india Updated: Oct 22, 2002 16:23 IST

Air-India was in the news twice this week First, the Minister for Civil Aviation unilaterally stated that our international carrier was no longer up for grabs; then, a senior editor gushed all over the front page on the near-orgasmic pampering aboard Flight AI 001 which took the Prime Minister on his recent swing through London, Copenhagen and Nicosia.

The Aviation Minister’s statement had the Alice-in-Blunderland quality of an Indian Airlines announcement. Flight cancellation is conveyed with a casualness that gives no indication of how adversely this affects the bigger plan or smaller people. Forget about the missed meeting on which your future depended. Sympathise instead with the beleaguered Mr Arun Shourie. There he is trying to fulfill his KRAs while every other Minister insists on taking his own fiefdom off the auctioneer’s block.

I have only an academic interest in Air-India’s disinvestment, but I was personally affected by the prime ministerial junket. Yes, I too was on a three-country tour, but it wasn’t to assert India’s position in the global polity. Yes, one sector of my trip did include being closeted with ‘top-drawer journalists’, but these were merely my fellow members of the World Editors Forum Board, not the exalted assembly of head honchos of the Indian media jetting with shrimp teriyaki and lamb souvlaki. The gorgeous Dina Vakil who went with them was being too kind when she referred to the PM’s Press Men as the ‘boisterous testosterone’. My impression is that the only thing that gives them a rise is the size of their own bylines.

Be that as it may, reading her despatch, I understood why Zone F of London Heathrow resembled a terminal-stage Kurukshetra last Sunday. If one of Air India’s 747s had been turned into a hawai mahal for Vajpayee the Voyager it could be the reason why the aam janata at LHR had been left grounded.

I had arrived unsuspectingly on Air Canada from Toronto to catch a connecting flight. ‘Unconnecting fight’ would be more apt. Tempers flew because people couldn’t. I wasn’t sure whether the previous flight had been entirely cancelled or whether droves of passengers had simply been offloaded. All I could see was a desperate crowd trying to get on as though it was the last plane out of a country caught in a coup.

But Air-India’s ground staff managed the mutinous masses with karmic calm. I miraculously managed to get a boarding pass, and I sprinted to Gate 23. On the plane, I realised once again why I am such a gob-smacked admirer of our international carrier. No other crew can handle the shoving, seat-swapping, locker-stuffing, bachcha-towing mela-melee that is the returning Indian passenger. We’re awed into submission on other airlines. But we don’t have to be prim-shim when we’re on the hawai jahaz of home, no?

This is why I love travelling on Air-India that is Bharat. If you aren’t on the Prime Minister’s plane, or a cattle-class journalist upgraded to First, you are unlikely to be plied with caviar and Cognac — or a Maharajah Mac as the First Grand-daughter reportedly was. But the air-hostess will serve you paneer pasanda with such grace that you will eat it imagining it is indeed the murg shahi korma you actually asked for —and thanking your good fortune that it wasn’t vice versa.

I feel so at home aboard Air-India. The raucous prattle about movies and mantris ricocheting off the rows. The camaraderie of the loo queue. The children tearing down the aisles as unrestrainedly as they would in their own building’s passage — or in the corridors of five-star coffee shops. The paunchy purser looking on indulgently as a passenger overloads the overhead locker with enough plastic packages to give my courier service a serious complex. I feel churlish to complain about their mashing my duty-free smoked salmon stowed up there.

I chat all night with Vithalbhai from Virginia (do I have a choice?). He offers to host me at a Patel motel in any American state except Alaska; he even insists on facilitating my son’s green card: “I fix up a paper bride. No prawblem.” Can any other airline offer me this network?

So don’t ever knock Air-India in my presence. Don’t even ever knock it off the auctioneer’s block. Why you want some corporate bottom-line to ruin the wide-bodied comfort of our own? You’re mad or what?

* * *

Alec Smart said, “You think we’ve begun to produce world-class athletes? Don’t e a dope.”

First Published: Oct 20, 2002 01:36 IST