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Ah, Air India !

Rahul da CunhaAir Asia is set to merge with the Tatas. Kingfisher ponders a future with Etihaad. And Air India joyously flies the Tricolour. So there I am flying to Benaras, to shoot pictures of Naga Babas smoking chillums and spouting philosophy.

The flight has been delayed three hours, with no SMS apology. When queried the airline manager does explain, “Sir, our systems have been down for three months”. Feels more like three years, but hey who’s counting.

The music system plays an old medley of Pt Ravi Shankar’s hits, the tape so old that the sitar sounds like a violin. I look around me. Our national airline reminds me of the bus that Amitabh Bachchan took in the movie, Bombay to Goa. A motley crew of passengers all heading for a holy dip.


Illustration/ Amit Bandre

First onto the flight are two Babas, one is old world — orange robes, shaved head and trishul in hand. Behind him is Bob Marley with a sword. Dread locks, black robe, beads and machismo.

The two Sadhus lock horns in their scuffle to make space for trishul vs talwar in the hand baggage hold. One truly stoned hippie, watching this, slurs his stoned protest, ‘Dude they confiscated my scissors, and they’re allowing some serious weaponry into the plane.” “Those aren’t weapons of violence they are symbols of spirituality,” I explain.

“Awesome,” he says and goes back into his haze of hashish. And there’s Minister Saab, clearly flying on a free ticket/politicians quota. How do I know he’s a servant of the country? He wears a crisp white khadi shirt, white trousers, white shoes (a la Jeetendra in Farz), and a ring on every finger.

As we are taking off, one of his two phones beckons. “Haan bol....,” he thunders ominously to a chamcha. The airhostess, Kuchipudi make-up and Nazi approach, demands he switches off his phone and fasten his seat belt. “Tujhe pata hai ki main kaun hoon?” he growls, handing her his visiting card.
Madame Mussolini, short of patience and a skilled mime artiste, jerks his seat forward and starts to buckle his belt as herapidly holds his breath, astonished at her matriarchal approach.

And even as mayhem occurs around me, I settle back into my ‘desperately in need of new upholstery’ seat. I feel contented. This is old India. This is faded India. This is unprivatised India. This is India in a time warp.

And for all its faults, it feels oddly familiar. No airhostesses in short dresses. No pilots with strange South American accents. No India Shining. Just India Barely Flying. With all its idiocy, idiosyncrasies and insanity.

As we alight, Minister Saab heads into the newly anointed Executive Lounge, while I dash to the conveyor built to check if my luggage isn’t on its merry way to Lucknow.  The baggage handler tells me, soothingly, “Tension mat lo. Aapka bag aa jayega.” I feel reassuringly terrified.

Rahul da Cunha is an adman, theatre director/playwright, photographer and traveller. Reach him at rahuldacunha62 @gmail.com

The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper. 

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