“They have all new planes,” says my travel agent, “just give them one more chance, they are not like Air India of old times.” They are also cheaper by several thousand rupees flying to London, so I put aside my old reluctance and agree to give the national carrier another bite at my custom. I regret it before I’ve even checked in at Delhi’s Terminal 3. The queue resembles the writhing innards of several large dinosaurs after they’ve feasted on Homo Travelicus Indicus, suitcases piled into little canyons on trolleys, screaming children, and four or five check-in staff dotting a row of 17 counters. I’m there well in advance of the check-in cut off but by the time I get to a counter it’s getting critical.
By the time I pass through the alimentary canal of immigration and security, the screen tells me the flight is boarding. I run to the gate, cursing that there’s no time for either a raid on the Duty Free nor a quick cigarette in I-Ganz International Terminal 3’s excellent nicotine-immersion chamber. At the gate it’s clear the flight isn’t taking off any time soon. People mill about, trampling over each other in slow-motion as only Indians (well, okay, only desis) can do. There are no recognizable queues. Suddenly we are told we have to get yet another check done on our passports by a pair of truculent looking khakis, and it’s clearly useless asking what the point of the interminable wait at the immigrations desks was for if we had to go through this stuff yet again. At some point, they open the doors to the air-bridge and the crowd starts to siphon itself through like thick sludge. I find myself next to a too-calm looking Air India official, the kind whom several succeeding ministries from the time of Y.B Chavan have failed to dislodge from the airline. This man has been flight manager since 1964 and when Air India flies to Saturn he will still be there. “Sir, why don’t you ask people to board in batches? You know, rear seats first and so forth?” The man looks at me pityingly. “We do normally. Today the PA system is not working.” I shake my head and dive into the scrum; the entire herding area for the flight is the size of a small classroom that a medium-voiced school monitor could have shouted into shape, but no, our man can’t be bothered because there is no PA system.
The plane is packed to its brand new Boeing gills. Luggage spills from the overhead racks, if modern hard plastic could bulge these racks would have bulged. I’m on the aisle seat, with an old sardarji next to me and his wife in the window seat. As we wait, Oldbeard snarls softly as if doing a japp: “Oy chal, yaar, chal dey abb!” After about half an hour the pilot hears my man and the 777 lumbers forward. As we take off, sardarji decides that all the armrests including mine on the aisle side are all his. I’m not about to be squeezed into some Guantanamo stress position for nine hours so I protest by pushing back with my arm and capturing a small beachhead on our shared armrest. I meet defensive muscle, steely and determined and through gritted, polite teeth me and Oldbeard reach the cruising altitude of 38,000 feet.
I’m now hoping for a drink and a hot meal but this airline believes in upholding its traditions. Somewhere over Kandahar, the air-hostaa (as one Punjabi friend calls male flight attendants) flings down a ‘snack’ consisting of cold, old sandwiches clearly obtained at a bargain from Kingfisher. Not being able to smoke on flights is bad enough, without alcohol I’m going to demand a parachute. “Can I get a drink please?” I ask in my most polite voice. “Certainly sir, if you ask for one, you can get.” Ah, it’s that old adage by which AI clearly flies: agar bachha rotaa nahi toh maa bhi dudh nahi pilaati: if a baby doesn’t cry even a mother doesn’t offer milk. After I’ve quaffed the sandwiches (of butter on butter) the man comes up and asks me what I want to drink. “Whisky?” I ask and he nods. Within minutes he’s back with two plastic glasses, one full of ice and one filled to the brim with Redlebbel, the queen mother of Patiala pegs. I disengage my drinking bicep from the Oldbeard’s steely limb and let my fingers vibrate around the glass.
After a while, we all try to sleep. It becomes clear to me that Air India have had to really tighten their belts in order to purchase these new aircraft — they’ve decided to do without any padding on the bottoms of their seats. Over the Caspian sea the turbulence starts and the metal frame of the seat gives me a hard posterior massage all the way into central Europe. Somewhere over Lodz, we give up on sleep and sardarji starts telling me about his life. He was in Calcutta for six months in 1946, as a twenty-year-old. Then back to Punjab and then Nairobi. Then UK and a military commission in the British army’s electrical corps, main job being to test tank engines. Now retired for over 20 years, he and his wife live in Nottingham, not far from the labs where he worked. As we descend into London, I feel my bruised, left upper arm, wonderment at the quality of the milk, ghee and sarson of 1920s Punjab mixing with the ache.
At Heathrow, we finally separate, the steel-muscled old man and I. The old couple head off under the sign that says ‘UK Passports’ while I enter the next intestine, the long, slow-moving folded snake of the queue that welcomes all non-EU passport holders to Schloss Britannia.
A few days later, I find myself in another waiting crowd, this time at Euston Station during the evening peak hours. All around me in the main hall, people stand in small clusters, looking up in the same direction as if waiting for a sign from a messiah. We are all staring at the shifting yellow names and numbers on the digital departure board. At 18.50, the 17.03 Birmingham train info flicks to the right and a platform number appears next to the train name. At this, the still clusters move, like a herd of wildebeest who’ve sensed a pride of lions. Suddenly we are all speeding towards the platform, a thousand bag-wheels rolling on concrete creating the sound of a miniature motorized army. Unlike with desis, no one actually pushes (except one drunk suit who rugby-slams past me) but people manoeuvre to within inches of touching, very British, but very 21st century British, not too polite, not afraid of semi-elbowing your way ahead to grab the seat you want for the 90-minute journey. The solid-looking young woman in the seat next to mine does an Oldbeard and occupies our joint arm-rest. I remember that Birmingham, too, has army bases and keep my arms well between my knees. Anyway, my station is only an hour away.
The Virgin pseudo-Eurostar train sways out of London and into the vast, darkling hinterland. After a while, the cellphones start ringing. Suddenly I’m listening to three people having personal conversations, all of them loud and utterly unconcerned that a bunch of strangers are going to be privy to how their interview went, to what the divorce lawyer said, to what the woman next to me was going to do to an older child who’d clearly bullied the younger one she was speaking to. I’ve been planning to read some work stuff on the journey but instead I just closed my eyes and listened to the sound of many humans confined together in a small tubular space. The seats have a touch more padding but otherwise I could well be on a desi flight.