It is that only to humans six years old and below that the thought of flying Air India is not depressing. To the older population the idea brings such moroseness that it makes them forget to tag their airport presence and holiday destinations on Facebook. Why the long face, one wonders. After all, it's our national airline! It has a cute little Maharaja as an original mascot—smiling, supplicating, hand-on-the-heart; exactly what we love and vote for in the elections. The air hostesses wear Indian dresses with unique motifs of peacock feathers and peahen
frowns browns. They usually serve us our very Indian idli-sambhar. Why then does our patriotism take flight the moment we learn we're flying AI?
Namastey is said as if there's snot all over your face...
Recently, for a flight at 5am we woke up (from a sleep we never slept) at 1:30 am. We reached the airport at a similarly ungodly hour. The Exorcism of Emily Rose had taught us back in 2005 that 3am in the night is the devil's hour. It is when we stood at the serpentine baggage check-in queue that we realized Hollywood can be right sometimes and also serpents in any form are satanic! With about 40 people, and their 40X3 bags, before us, this was going to be long. But why? There was only one check-in counter functioning for multiple flights. One! Not that the missing AI staffers didn't know how many flights take off then. Perhaps they were just... on a strike? We stood, obviously, like others did before us, regularly looking at the length of the queue behind us for morning motivation and not in front. The kid by then made the trolley his bed.
After 500 years or so of waiting, some AI flights were about to take off without passengers. Non-VIP passengers, I mean. So someone obviously lost her patience and screamed, "Why is there only one counter running?" A man who had by now tied his muffler around his waist in a kalaripayat style joined in with his thunder. Fortunately for the high dome of IGI airport, the manager on duty standing safely, and invisibly, a kilometre away from the queue heard the echo. Poof! Another counter came alive, almost as if the guy was sleeping behind it all this while, waiting for the question to be asked. As if it was routine. He rubbed his eyes, settled his hair and began staring unblinkingly at his screen. (Solitaire does that to me too.)
If the queue was moving at a snail's pace before, it began moving at two snails' pace now.
When our turn finally came and we crossed the thick yellow line, we felt like we were Indian Idols selected for the Big Boss house. We sent a silent prayer of gratitude to the Maharaja and this prayer was still on its way when... "Check-in baggage toh nahi hai?" spat the counter no. 1 man. Once the fire from his mouth abated we guiltily said yes and with shivering hands put our sole suitcase on his belt. Hand-baggage tags reached us like bullets and we felt ever-so-sorry for having taken His Highness's precious time and humongous favour. How remiss of us!
We almost walked away without turning our back to him, humbly bending again and again, retreating from the august presence and fortunate encounter till we finally bumped into the security check sign-board. And another queue, of course.
I did find one-fourth of a parantha tucked between two rice grains. It was a perfect triangle the length of my middle finger.
So going back to paragraph 1, many of us have our reasons, accumulated like adipose tissue over the years, for forgetting to tag our airport presence and holiday destinations on FB.
For instance, when you reach the door of the AI air craft you find an air hostess or two standing there to welcome you. Except, it may sometimes feel like wiping your bare feet on a coir doormat which reads, "Oh well! Come!" Namastey is said as if there's snot all over your face and if you're lucky it's said to the air on your right.
You settle in and look at those mini-TVs with hope in your eyes, as does your kid. You realise they aren't coming on and it's no surprise. Kids take longer to deal with harsh truths of life. They press all the buttons. Press press press punch. Then they press all their parents' buttons which miraculously may have been left un-pressed still, before deciding to watch the dark night outside instead of the Dark Knights next to them. Blankets and pillows are rare and you probably need raffle tickets to stand a chance of landing some.
But surely food is the salvation? Woe befalls you if you're sitting in the middle of the plane, no matter that it's the Emergency Door seat and the lives of 300 passengers depend on your pulling the handle in time. That proud-ish feeling slinks away as the food carts start rolling your way. You look back. You look in the front. Coming. Coming. Still coming. Almost here. Here! "Sorry ma'am. We've run out of veg. We can give you a bun and jam." You're a Punjabi steam engine in a seatbelt but the cork of English-speaking decency keeps the chimney blocked. A meek okay later you decide to mew, "Excuse me. May I have two buns, please?" And you know, in your deepest gut you know that was a wrong question to ask and bam! She says as she moves away, louder than before, "Sorry! We don't give extras." Eight people hear it, 10 decide to look at you. No one dares to look at the air hostess. Suddenly, a vision of your subzi bhaiya comes up. With a halo behind his head. A saint who gives ₹5-ka-dhaniya free. A saint!
Just like all nails scratching a wall must reach the floor some time and stop, so comes to an end your Air India flight.
Not that getting food is any guarantee of gastric satisfaction. You see, we were recently served rice with baingan ka bharta. I eat both happily! But together? They are scientifically unmixable and especially with a fork which weighs two times the weight of the whole food tray! I did find one-fourth of a parantha tucked between two rice grains. It was a perfect triangle the length of my middle finger. It was cute. But it didn't unfurl into a circle. Coffee was served alongside our dinner with a kaam-khatam-karo zeal and we were left with the supernatural task of mixing-mixing to eat our dinner before the coffee went cold. Or before the trays were collected and the lights turned off. Because they were!
You see, as soon as the last tray was picked up, or maybe even before that, the plane went dark. Helped with using the toothpicks but still! Did I hear an air steward announce "Lights out! Off to bed"' No no. It must be my memories of the nunnery interfering with my sense of reality. Anyhow, nearly all the reading lights came on immediately. People had things to do. Important things to read. Funny things to say. Fun holidays to plan. Strange dinner things to wipe off their mouths. In that silver haze comes sleep. It better, actually! To sleep is human but to snore in an AI flight is divine, because it's only that deep sleep which can take you away from the goriest and grumpiest of ...
I guess some goodbyes are sweeter than hellos. Especially when in the national carrier... Chalo. Kaam khatam hua. Asha kartey hain aap ek baar phir humein ...
Anyway. Just like all nails scratching a wall must reach the floor some time and stop, so comes to an end your Air India flight. You land. Once before you heard the Captain's voice asking the crew to just sit down now for takeoff. You again hear a thank you for being in air with Air India from the said Captain, who is impeccably dressed and bordering on handsome but who sounds exactly like a doctor's handwriting.
The seat-belt sign is off and everyone is up as if they spotted an ATM machine with no queues. The plane is full of hustle and bustle and truant burps and sighs of relief. And amidst all the din and ado, there suddenly shines a ray of hope. Unexpectedly. You realise you hadn't seen that shine for the longest time.
The air hostess at the door has a big, wide smile for you. A smile! And so do you! For her!
I guess some goodbyes are sweeter than hellos. Especially when in the national carrier, the nation has finally reached where it wanted to go. Chalo. Kaam khatam hua. Asha kartey hain aap ek baar phir humein ...