Friday, May 16, 2008

My tryst with Air India

My tryst with Air India did not begin at the stroke of the midnight hour or on the 15th of August 1947. I wasn’t even born then, neither was Air India nor did they have their office at CP (Connaught Place to the uninitiated). It began on a chill February morning in 2008 in Delhi, when the New in its name had grown quite old, as its many offices gathered many files, folders, broken typewriters, cobwebs, pigeon nests, pigeon poop, senile politicians and bureaucrats stuck to their chairs and corridors of power till death do them apart.

The morning chill cut through the driver of the bike and my jersey to rattle up the nerves and memories of hot insipid chaai. The road to CP had its usual twists and turns along with its traffic lights and confounding roundabouts that were the trademark of Mr. Edward Lutyens. I have always hated roundabouts, regardless of whether you went around them or them around you, and these ones weren’t any exceptional. It was almost a week before I could find my way to my work without any help from car drivers, pedestrians, beggars, school children or the usual hang-abouts. I had some urgent matters to tend to that particular day at the Air India Office which was barely a couple of kilometers away.

So, we bravely set forth in the general direction of more roundabouts. We asked a couple of passers-by for more directions and soon found ourselves shuttling for almost an hour between the Air Force HQ and the Akashvani Building which lay further ahead, with regular sightings of the GPO and some other insignificant buildings and shops that are found everywhere. Sick of wasting petrol, time at traffic lights and doing some extensive legwork to change gears we decided to pounce upon another unsuspecting passerby for directions. This one was a bit different from the rest and gave us directions for the Parliament House!!! A fat lot of help, these pedestrians in Delhi. The blighters must have been in Delhi the whole of their lives and not one bugger knew the exact direction to the Air India Bldg.

A kind policeman who was busy reprimanding drivers finally bailed us out with another set of directions. Faithfully following them led us to the Airlines House. We barged into their reception to book our International tickets where we were kindly informed in a Mallu accent that the Indian Airlines never have had any international flights since their inception and that the pending merger between the two state owned enterprises would not change things either. After a brief sermon in chaste Mall-inglish, the lady gave the directions to CP and to look out for a multi-storied Jeevan Bharti building full of glass. We reached the corner of CP, parked our bike to seek out the ‘building full of glass’. It really was a sight, when we realized that we had indeed parked in the exact place and the bldg was actually full of glass, from the other side that is.
It had taken us almost a shade under two hours to cover a measly distance of two, maybe four kilometers!!! I really wished things would improve for the better the next time around.

Some really wise guy with great imagination once said if wishes were horses, then pigs could fly. My wish really came true the next time around we reached the Air India Office in no time. (One of the main reasons was that I was doing the driving this time!!! {With a great show of driving skills and especially wheely-ing with a scared pillion rider in one of the roundabouts at peak Delhi traffic. Beat that if you can, Paul [1]}). We sat there waiting for the grand old lady at the counter to apparate after her lunch and siesta. Since she was no Hermione Granger, we had to wake her up at re-opening time so that we could start our legal and financial transactions. As I sat there booking my tickets, a really sizeable Punju lady ambled across to show her brand new dupatta/stole which she bought when she sneaked out during her lunch break. (Considering her size, I doubt if she could sneak through the India gate, and unnoticed at that). There was considerable interest shown over this brand new piece of apparel by both the ladies about the quality of Fab India (a garment manufacturer) material. A grand debate (which would have put to shame the producers, stage actors of the Big Fight series in NDTV and the Arattai Arangam of Visu [2]) ensued about the colour of the stole, which was a copper sulphate blue, the rapidity at which it would fade away followed by another lengthy discussion about the water situation in Delhi and how it was or wasn’t suitable for washing. I heaved a sigh of relief when there was a slight pause, hoping that I would get my tickets now. But it was not to be as another lengthy discussion on the branches of Fab-India, their best one and the worst one ensued. I sat there transfixed, defenseless against this barrage of gossip-jamming.

I hoped against hope and the grand dame’s paan chewing and spewing, (The thought actually sent me into launching a paan coloured lip-stick with one of the cosmetic giants. Pity it would never seen the lips of any sane lady. I even had my model sitting in front of me) that I would finally get my tickets. Some of the printed tickets lay inert in the printer tray when there appeared this shady looking agent with a small hand-bag tucked under his arm. (He too had paan stains on his teeth. I deduced immediately that the two of them were chums or siblings who had identified themselves after twenty years in the wilderness thanks to their paan stains. I also figured that some very zany re-mix of Yaadon ki Baarat would be playing the background incessantly.) He was into cahoots with the fat lady, whose stole had been the cause of this merciless torture, getting his many tickets, chewing paan and making some small talk when he mentioned something about a pink or red rose plant at his home. The grand dame swung into action again, leaving me and my tickets in the lurch as she launched into one of her oratories about her dogs, how the two of them always urinated on her rose bushes, how the two of them never understood this one sensitively smelly issue, how her repeated warnings and reprimands always led them tragically relieving themselves on her favourite plants over and over again till she had come to terms with her fate and the strange smell of her roses.

God Almighty! This was getting a bit out of hand. So I did what best I could under these very trying times. I gave the lady my very-very best terror-look. This was the very kind of stare that would have melted the likes of the Australian cricket team into submission and some American football teams running back to their mothers. I wasn’t sure whether it was my look or the departure of the paaneri [3]-agent that got me my tickets over the next half hour or thereabouts. I was a very relieved man when I moved myself from that seat, only to stare into the eyes of my friend who had to book his tickets. It took us more than two hours to book our tickets, when we left the building I thought I heard the fat lady singing ………Yaadon ki Baarat.


[1] Beat that if you can, Paul. A good friend of mine who is really crazy about bikes, cars and generally eats anything that moves as long as it doesn’t bite him back. He is also a good guitarist with an Enfield Thunderbird without a back rest that aids him in wheel-ying off his pillion riders from time to time. It must be added that when he rides around, the street is conspicuously empty of other riders, pedestrians; even the dogs and cats beat it when they can feel his bike around.

[2] Big Fight and Arattai Arangam of Visu. A Sunday pastime for many Tamils in Tambi Land is to watch this Arattai Arangam- a debate which features a lot of the needs, wants and the thoughts of the common man and woman. One is often left to wonder how such intelligent debaters and orators often are governed by the political parties that prey on religious and caste differences.

[3] Paaneri. A Paaneri is one who chews paan incessantly and makes a meal out of it. He/She is characterized by very dirty and discoloured teeth which the R&D Depts of both Pepsodent and Colgate have given up and reached an agreement not to advertise or research about in the future. Paan consists of Betel leaves, Betel nuts, some calcium carbonate paste and a lot of other condiments that depend on the persons taste and colour of the spit that dots the road, the potted plants, public toilets or the very rarely sighted spittoon.

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