Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Flying domestic in India

I was 24 when I got on an aeroplane for the first time, as my then employer flew a group of us 'MT's from Bombay to Bangalore. 

Now there is a sentence dripping nostalgia in every word.  Oh the times when we could proudly proclaim our MT-ness!  The age when Bombay wasn't Mumbai and Bangalore wasn't ... whatever it is now.  Ah, being 24!  The time when one could get to be 24 years old, not-uncomfortably off, living for six years in Delhi and Calcutta (yes, with a C, thank you very much), and not have stepped on an airplane yet.  As the line from a half remembered sher goes - woh din guzar gaye, woh zamaana guzar gaya.  That day is gone, that age is past.

Flying in India has been democratized.  Or at the very least, it has been ungentiled.  Everyone flies, or can conceive of flying some day.  My driver mentioned yesterday that he wants to fly home to Patna one day.  (He said a load of other things, but that is for another post - too juicy for me to do justice in passing.)

Flying in India has also become fun.  Much more so than flying domestic in the US ever was.  There, flying was about getting from point A to point B.  Here, that is only a side benefit of the adventure, the story.

It was pouring bucketsful when I woke up in the wee hours of the morning.  Like seemingly all flights out of Mumbai, mine left at an ungodly early hour.  I groan.  I hope it stops just enough for me to take off. 

The driver is in a talkative mood.  Something about the water he had to wade through to get to work that morning.  'Morning' of course, is driver language for 'so freakin early that the birds are still in REM dreaming about the squiggly worms they will have for breakfast in three hours'.  The monsoon is in full glory.  It poured 102 mm yesterday.  Also known as a wet month's worth of rain in Washington D.C.  And it is going strong.  I ask the woman at the check-in counter whether flights are taking off.  Her plastic smile doesn't falter.  Yes sir, they are, she says.  And they are.  Flights are blithely ignoring the downpour, and taking off like this is a bright sunny Florida morning.  They are made of hardy stuff, these Indians.  It took a mild shower for 30 minutes for Delta to cancel my flight from Baltimore last month.  In this weather, their planes would just be very expensive airport props.

It is remarkably crowded, considering the hour.  But then, this is India.  It is always remarkably crowded.  I get to security, adding my bags onto the really short screening belt, which can barely take two bags at a time.  Perfunctorily patted down and declared eligible to go in, I pick up my bags on the other side.  I walk up to the coffee shop, happy to have navigated things so smoothly.  This is going to be a good day. 

Coming to India has not helped my coffee selection problem.  I still don't understand the name of any of the flavors.  Is mocha the thing I used to like?  Or was it latte?  What is a machiatto?  Isn't Aztec the name of some clan in medieval European history?  Forget it, it isn't worth the trouble.  Maybe I will just check my email. 

Wait a minute, where is my cell phone?  Shit!  I didn't pick it up at the other end of security screening.  I run.  Which screener was it?  I think this one.  'Nahin sir, yehan tho nahin hai', says the potential thief in uniform, denying any responsibility.  I run through every belt.  Talk to every security guy.  Are they trying to be unhelpful or is ignorance their natural state of being?  Mr. I-am-in-charge-here comes by.  Calm down sir, he tells me, zen like.  Calm down?  Somebody just stole my cell phone.  Don't ask me to freakin calm down!  It cannot disappear, he states.  Any minute now he is going to read out the law of conservation of mass.  "Did you put it in the bag before screening?"  In the bag?  Why would I ... oh ... oh ... of course!  I put it in the bag!  Right ... here.  I can't meet the guy's eyes.  "Sorry", I mumble.  "Chalta hai sir" he smiles and ambles back.  I continue mumbling apologies to every uniform I see, but no one seems to notice.  Trust, JS.  Not everyone is out to rob you. Trust.  Calm down.

I am still shaken when I get into my window seat.  Which is probably why it takes me a while to realize that my neighbor is watching TV.  TV?  On a domestic flight?  Turns out, that is part of the drill.  I am going to be flying a lot in the coming weeks.  Let me pick something I can watch consistently.  Mentalist, Season 1.  Yup, that sounds about right. 

"Can I have a newspaper please?" asks someone.  Of course.  It is coming back.  You can ask for a newspaper of your choice!  I forgot all about that.  I ask for The Economic Times, ignore the trash that passes for news in this pink rag, and go right to the crossword.  Hello, old friend.  Nice coming across you here.  How are things going down?  (Get it?  Across, down?  Cheap, but funny, if you allow yourself)

The flight staff all look like they just got off a Bollywood couch.  Why is every one of them so pretty?  What do the non-pretty, non-handsome people do in this country?  I look around.  Oh, I get it.  Flying in India is about a handful of beautiful people waiting on a plane load of ugly people, self leading the pack.  Suddenly a western voice booms too loudly over the intercom - "Good morning, my name is Jeff".  What the heck is going on here?  Is this some sort of a call center in reverse?  Turns out Jeff is one of the many western pilots that fly domestic airlines in India.  Well, who knew?

An hour later, I am done with the pilot episode of the Mentalist.  Simon Baker is ridiculously handsome and insanely good.  I am hooked.  I am also full, because they feed you like farm pigs on these flights.  My neighbor hands back his tray to the hostess.  His napkin is covering the tray, like a shroud over the mortal remains of what once was a thriving meal.  RIP breakfast, you were good while you lasted.  Or maybe he is just guilty about all the leftovers.

It is barely 8AM.  I have had a day's worth of adventure.  Flying is tiring.


  1. Lonesome Tango07 July, 2010 13:29

    The food is one thing that really used to distinguish Indian flights and make them fun. Not sure about other western countries, but, when I once took a domestic flight within the US, I was absolutely shocked to get peanuts and some other namkeen (pretzels, I think they were called). They weren't even very namkeen if I remember right. But, sadly, many domestic airlines in India also have nowadays started cutting down on meal service in the effort to keep the cost down - a really bad side effect of "democratizing" flying.
    Also, JS, wait until winter, when you get stuck in Delhi or Kolkata due to the smog or whatever. It's getting worse every year it seems!

  2. Your post is really interesting...I can instantly visualize your narrative...

  3. this might help u with the coffee selection problem at least ! .. :)

  4. Dude...Just realized that I was there when you consummated your first flight.


  5. Enjoy it while it lasts JR

  6. I took a few domestic flights while in India and I loved how the air hostesses had such great uniforms. The all red "Spice girls" with matching luggage, the Nehru jackets, the sari look. Very cool.


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