Listen Air India, up until the 1990s, not many of us could travel abroad as easily and frequently as we do now. So you, our national airline, had to be out there looking sharp for us, and your Maharajah was a decent enough mascot, however paradoxical. A deferential yet regal sort, he was both buttoned-up doorman and lazy-lidded sage. This unlikely Maharajah worked his chi because he didn't need to be an accurate depiction of culture or class on the ground. He was always a playful intermediary, living in a reality that only exists at 30,000 ft of international airspace, where the colours of culture and custom blur. Either that's what you set out to do, Air India, or your guys were liberally refreshing themselves with bhang lassis when you unveiled this awkward little weirdo back in 1946.
We love you, AI, because you've always been fun. In the 1950s, your in-flight safety manuals advised strongly against storing babies in seatback pockets, and discouraged stealing the in-flight cutlery. How we would laugh. You are the one airline that - after 9/11 turned most airports into rule-crazy, paranoid, metal-detecting obstacle courses - seems to have kept its sense of humour.
Your mascot may not be a real Maharaja, but he is a perfect representative of your attitude towards providing service. Where else would a kind, matronly flight attendant ask if you'd like a beer, then suggest, to save her some work later, that you take two cans? Brilliant. Even more so when she comes around later anyway, with two more cans. She's not likely the type who'd be boozing you up on Bharat Terra Firma, but up here in the vacuum, this bit of cheekiness is part of the culture blur, for them as much as us.
I recall a recent flight from London to Mumbai, where, on the descent, a surly flight attendant, strapped in to her seat next to the emergency door, insisted on finishing her hot cup of chai as we shuddered towards touchdown. She spilled a bit on her uniform, but she didn't care, and what are you gonna do about it? Call one of AI's eight customer service lines and expect one of them to work? Please.
Air India, we love you the way we love puppies that piss on rugs, we will forgive you anything, but sometimes your disregard for IATA rules can go beyond endearing and approach life-threatening. Like that time those two pilots left the cockpit, having given a quick crash course in piloting to two flight attendants, who then almost set the 150+ passengers on course for a crash.
More recently, you've been delaying flights because you're understaffed, or because your staff can't reach the gate on time, as if Indian Standard Time has oozed onto the concourse. Not only that, but as one article points out, 100 flight attendants were declared "unfit to fly as per DGCA rules"; rules that relate to body mass index, which means, at least in our national imagination of airborne coddling, a whole fleet of our favourite AI aunties are so fat they've had to be grounded. For shame.
We're going to need some better PR here, guys. And who better to refuel our hearts with love than that caste-ambiguous rascal of a name-only Maharajah? Why not give him a modern makeover to lure irony-obsessed Millennials to your rickety old planes we can't afford to replace to accommodate our hefty staff? Oh you did that already? Wow. And oh sweet lord, look, the result is almost as risible as learning that the very first AI five-seaters that puddle-jumped from Colombo to Karachi twice a week in the 1930s were called "puss moths".
Who is this goofball? The signature moustache remains, but it's sprouting from what appears to be a teenager fresh from a wardrobe raid on the sets of Om Shanti Om. This is a cultural insult. And yet, this is how you yourselves apologise for this latest incarnation on your official website, through imaginary pedigree:
Today, this naughty diminutive Maharajah of Air India has become a world figure. He can be a lover boy in Paris, a sumo wrestler in Tokyo, a pavement artist, a Red Indian, a monk... he can effortlessly flirt with the beauties of the world. And most importantly, he can get away with it all. Simply because he is the Maharajah!
Well guys, that's just weird. And forget the latent racism or grammatical incoherence, what makes this little ponce so contemporary is, bizarrely, that his brand-specific closed eyes remain as such thanks to a smartphone held close to his chest. No longer is he bowing at us, your valued customers and extended patrimony, but into his own narcissistic self on his little black mirror. You don't get much more contemporary than that.
But let's not pretend, Air India, like this is going to help you back into profitability. We stand by you because you're out-of-date, unhip, and unconcerned about any of it. That is your charm. That is why we love you. The Maharajah doesn't need an update, guys. The Maharajah isn't old-school enough. We don't want the Miss-India-reject flight attendants like they have on Indigo. We don't want competent pilots. We fly AI because it supplies us with a thrilling sense of our own mortality, and of course, for the sweet aunties who serve us beers with our channa masala on long-haul flights.
So don't go changin' too much, ok?