Back in the vintage 60s, air travel in India was the exclusive refrain of the rich – no, make that stinking rich. The aerial route was not for one in a hurry. Because back then, no one was in a hurry. Weddings and deaths, both were preplanned events that could be marked on a calendar well in advance to plan a train booking. Sometimes, trains were exchanged from Dadar to Bombay Central. Sometimes, from broad gauge to metre gauge. Sometimes, one changed from a train to a bus in much the same fashion as one changed trousers. Onward journeys were a way of life, a travel period spanning a week was in vogue and bedding (didn’t some people also call it a hold-all?) with one suitcase full of clothes and another full of snacks, pickles, Glucose biscuits, pooris, papads, paan kit were necessary and sufficient embellishments that one carried on train travel.
Train compartments by themselves were awesome social networking sites. Forefathers of the present Facebook Express, perhaps. In days of internetlessness, victims of random allotment of seats, say cycle store owner Chandubhai, ittar salesman Agnihotri and Major Bhalla spent two nights and one day in adjacent hold-alls, trading dhoklas, biscuits and chiwda with each other, and playing rummy before disembarking from the train in a new spirit of back-slapping bonhomie.
Each discovered India in one’s own commonly unique way. Train travel was more than a commute from one place to another. It was an experience in community living and very often, a lesson in survival. A mega Indian joint family per bogie. People lent their soaps and shaving creams to one another. They played antakshari, shared ribald jokes, revealed gotras to each other, discussed alliances and ‘matches’, heard commentary on All India Radio. Camaraderie reigned supreme between total strangers who came together for a fleeting moment in their lives, by sheer happenstance.
But air travel – aha! That was a game in a different league. The stinking rich didn’t care why they paid so much more than the more ‘down-to-earth’ Chandubhais to move from say, Madras to Bombay. Was it necessary to fly just because you could save mere two days of time? Bombay was going to stay in Bombay, no? Wasn’t it going to be stationary? (pun intended) Even among the rich, there was a silent caste system. Some stinking rich stank more than the rest and travelled only in the new and snazzy Caravells, that didn’t need a propeller to propel itself. And they made a lot less noise than the downmarket Viscounts and Dakotas, and outshone the Avros any day. Trips cost the same bomb irrespective of the aircraft.
But there was snootiness in opting for a travel on the day the Caravell wheezed into your aero-space. Technically, it was not a money matter. It was more of a style statement. The Dakota-er was like a Safari suit wearer, while the Caravell-er was like a smart pleated trouser ensemble.
Every air traveller was accompanied by a retinue of see-off-ers and also receivers, depending on which direction you were flying – out or in. The see-off-ers waited till the aircraft had taken off. When the see-off-ee had presumably seated and strapped himself, the gawking entourage would run up to the viewing balcony and wave at every window as the aircraft moved past, in the hope that their see-off-ee would see the farewell waves and wave back. This was reflected glory. In some mystical way, the riches of the air traveller rubbed off on those who waved louder than others.
It was just phoren. Plain and simple, with no For a guy going phoren, wedding-like festivities preceded his travel.
But when it came to the stinkiest and the filthiest from among those rich, it was at a different level. Because these guys travelled phoren. Back then, it was not abroad, not overseas, not even the rather neutral ‘out of country’. It was just phoren. Plain and simple, with no synonyms. For a guy going phoren, wedding-like festivities preceded his travel. Every colony resident and relative in town would step in unannounced, days in advance, and offer help with packing, shaking hands, canvassing for getting gifts and photos. Newspaper adverts by sycophants wished them a ‘Bon Voyage’. Dozens of huge Samsonite bags, plastered all over with labels and names added to the pride of the traveller. He was not one of the ‘masses’ anymore. Bye-bye, common man-ism.
The see-off party at the airport boosted the fortunes of garland makers and photographers. People descended at the airport in hordes. This was a hand-me-down style statement. The next best thing to travelling phoren was to garland the one who was, get photographed with them, shake their hand and hope that enough people had seen the phoren traveller recognise and smile at you. When they returned – they all did – they were called phoren-returned. How often have you been asked if you were a ‘phoren-returned’?
But I digress. When he returned, it was as if a silhouette of the Eiffel tower was growing out of his shoulder blade and the Statue of Liberty was imprinted in the halo around him. While unpacking bags for days, and handing out gifts and postcards, he would regale you with stories about how he unpacked and ate his bhel-puri in the lawns outside the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and how he put his bio-chemical paan kit to good use on a boat ride at the Thames. Some tez channa, katha, kacchi supari, star chutney sprinkled in paan leaves from Banaras would be found, still moist in the plastic bag they were holed up in. This was the advantage of being a rich Indian. You carried India with you in Samsonites, and unleashed them in phoren lands. Guerilla warfare at its best.
All this had to change. As years went by, time did become a precious commodity. Many people came on a short-duration visa to get married, and had to marry quick. More and more people began eloping and there had to be a hurried, respectable wedding to be carried out in a hurry. People still died of cancer and long-term ailments, but there were now peculiar and new diseases that killed people unexpectedly. More people needed to travel quickly and by air. Middle class-ism was up for an overhaul.
They wanted a change in the default settings. Do you think that the middle class should also travel by air? Click ‘Next’ to proceed and ‘Cancel’ to go back to the Main Menu. The entire class clicked ‘Next’. And then, there was a lofty socialistic objective at play. The skies had to get more inclusive. They had to broaden their base. There were no urban sky ceiling laws. Radio waves, sparrows, pigeons, bacteria, pollutants, clouds, political speeches – they all flew by air, didn’t they? So why not the middle class Indian, who still argued, but argued in English now?
Aircrafts were bought, airports were re-furbished, airlines were invented. New wannabe pilots did a crash course in flying. (This pun is very much intended.) A new breed of air traveller was thus born – and it took over. Witness the new dynamics at any airport waiting lounge now. Air travel is now a composite experience, less about going from Point A to Point B. There is an ambiance that has to be imbibed, drunk and internalised.
There is a protocol about how to alter the decibels you generate. Shout a loud “Ta-ta!” to your son while getting off the car, but switch into library/hospital mode as soon as you enter. When your crotch itches, just amble over to the edge of the baggage trolley and get your nirvana by a surreptitious rub against the handle. Scratching is reserved for Nampallys and Howras, please. Stand in the check-in queue without walking into the butt of the guy in front. Look around to see if you spot familiar faces, and impress a known acquaintance with your apparent ease at what seems like a familiar environment for you.
Walk to the bookstore. Browse a few magazines and books. Pick up a couple. Flash your credit card. Amble into the waiting lounge. Open your laptop. Type out the “quick brown fox…” if you want. Someone stupid enough to be watching you may believe you’re writing a nuclear treatise. Bring out your mobile. At this stage, your decibel level can be upped a bit. Tell the called one that you are leaving by the 19:35 flight. You have to say 19:35, not 7:35 pm if you want to be fashionable. Why you need to say ‘flight’ after you’ve already announced that you’re at the airport is a question that may not have any answers. Not a sane one anyway.
And when they announce that your flight is boarding, mayhem breaks out. Eager Indians, anxious men and women in a hurry all get up in unison, and jostle to reach the departure gate. This brings out the grim reminder that there still exists in our DNA Dadaji’s genes. Genes which fought pitched battles at railway stations to wade through throngs in order to reach the bogie at the 7:35 pm time because back then, some trains occasionally did hoot and chug away at the promised 7:35 pm, irrespective of whether you had got yourself and your hold-all into the train or not.
Some residual fear about being stranded still seems to exist in the jostlers’ minds. And when Indians jostle, they jostle hard. They can ram their laptop bag into a guy’s vertebrae. Pitifully, grown-up men are asked through mike announcements to ‘please form Q’ and to ‘please do not push your fellow passengers’. But they still push, still spit and still scratch all the way to the aerobridge or ladder.
To a certain extent, it depends on whether you’re in a metro or a wannabe metro like Udaipur, Patna or Baroda. The metros are being formed faster than the protagonists are causing their formation. Sounds like a good deal. But a DNA correction is in order which is not happening. And that’s not good news. Because when a neo-traveller is in the aircraft, he’s plying two massive suitcases, three magazines, gifts, roses, kids and a forgettable attitude, despite being told that he is entitled to carry just one compact handbag.
But there’s a Mahesh in his office who told him, “Balls! Just carry what you want. Whose grandfather will stop you?” The angry, youngish man, braver and newer in this world than Amitabh Bachchan, listens to Mahesh more than he listens to his conscience and an attempted upbringing. End result: he’s got multiple bags in tow that he’s deftly maneuvering down the aisle, opening every overhead baggage locker and cussing like a stable-boy, when he finds them full and occupied by other beneficiaries of Mahesh’s advice.
Part of the attitude of the neo-traveller is the realisation that he or his company has paid through their nose to fund his ticket. He pays for not just the octane and pilots, he pays for services. He’s into a call-button-pressing-spree. “Hello, madam!” No, madam is not being wished. This ‘hello’ is an order that means, “You’d better come here right away.” So back to “Hello, madam! What can you serve me?” Madam has been there and done that for some time now, so she smiles and says that she can serve coffee and tea. Mr. Neo wants to be difficult. “How about some fresh lime and soda?” Oh, yes! Why don’t you simply ask for Russian salad? Or maybe rajma cooked in Agra by a Mithalal Maharaj from Jodhpur, if he’s married to Radha, but sleeping with your servant Shravan in 3/RT, Post Office Colony, 8-3-141/A/123-C Part, Hyderabad? Sometimes, a reminder of the grim realities and humble origins and nonsensical existences are in order.
Welcome to the new caste system in air travel. Domestic is untouchable. International is Brahmannical, esoteric and ethereal.
Bags are jostled into nimble manufactures by Boeing and its plastic overhangs. There is tension in the air. High level demands by high level travellers. They animatedly argue about the bad Indian habit of spitting and eating paan. They are livid when they recollect that a flight from Aurangabad took off after a 25 minute delay without an apology or an announcement. But they are equally appreciative of the saucy stewardess who told an irate Cathay Pacific traveller in Hong Kong, “What is you hurry?”
Welcome to the new caste system in air travel. Domestic is untouchable. International is Brahmannical, esoteric and ethereal. Indian skies are pliable and very nicely security checked. Clouds don’t throw a tantrum or a hurricane like their Houston counterparts. They allow visibility and safe landings and move according to Air Traffic Control’s wishes. And when the aircraft finally lands, taxies and stops, passengers spring to their feet in synchronised unison.
Simple logic – the plane stopped, we have to get out. We have to get up to get out. So why are you snarling at me, old man, if I get up, slide over your knees and invert-turn to open the overhead baggage locker, in the face of whoever is foolish to stand in front of it with polite manners and a smile? Yes, I’m fanning my face with a newspaper that I grabbed from your seat’s front jacket. And while walking over you, your knees, your persona and your existence, I am going to show you my finger, pull my bag down on your shoulders just as you get up, and hurt you enough to remind you that you are an old fogey who doesn’t know how to catch an early locker.
This is an attitude with a vector, it has direction and a velocity. It makes for a good recount. But at the end of the day, the bottom-line is what Nawab Aminuddin Khan had to say to a tossing, turning, agitated lady traveller who went ballistic on the pilot for a not-so-smooth landing. Amin chacha cocked half-an-eyebrow at her and murmured, “Having a tough menopause, eh?”