FLYING WITH THE MAHARAJA

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WHEN MY SON INVITED ME TO JOIN HIM FOR A SHORT HOLIDAY, I was delighted. I had to only to reach Venice and the rest would be taken care of. Not having had a holiday for years, I travelled business class (mopping up my frequent flyer miles to make the grade). The Air India flight to Frankfurt was delayed by an hour, the excuse being that they had to offload a passenger. (Never mind how he got in, in the first place).

As we waited, I could hear a passenger, Italian for sure, immersed in a passionate cell phone conversation, He spoke with fervour about dying and ‘if I live’ and ‘if I die’ and ‘when I die’ and the sound of his dying declarations reverberated in the quiet air-conditioned air. The Italian’s conversation clearly irritated two passengers behind me, one of whom was German, who grumbled away to his quieter companion. As the dying litany continued the German raised his voice and barked military style, “I consider him a security threat”.

“You tell him that,” suggested the other. I could only hear what ensued.
“Will you stop talking about death and the dead?” ordered the German. The Italian did not understand at first but after he did, he let out a volley of expletives. The hushed silence in the business class was shattered even as the air hostess flapped around shushing the warring duo. The rest of the passengers craned their necks to absorb the full visual effects of what they could only hear. Far more interesting than learning how to lock and unlock seat belts.

The gauntlet had been thrown. There was now no going back on the fight. Two foreigners engaged in a verbal duel provided great entertainment to the rest of the cabin. Air India’s success in evacuating the unwanted passenger was, by then, of no consequence. The war of words was waged on both sides until the Italian threatened with a show of valour,
“What are you scared of? Dying? Don’t worry, I’ll die first.” That one declaration miraculously restored German pride and superiority. Cold coconut water that was proffered came as a welcome diversion before they all settled down at 1 a.m. to read yesterdays newspapers.

Air India looked after each one of us with tender care. Not only was the choice of breakfast — asparagus omelette with fresh fruit and yoghurt appetising, but it was served piping hot and chilled to perfection, the right way around. The air hostess was no Aishwarya Rai but her gentle manners and inflexion of voice were solicitous and soothing. The cabin attendant was bespectacled and appeared to be carrying a large ‘tarboos’ under his fitted shirt. But he made up by being attentive and springing forth with DVD discs, blankets and crunchy ‘bhujjiyas’.

The seats reclined completely. The service was perfect. So where was the catch? Air India carried no menu card despite its array of exotic meals. Despite all the attention, the prawn canapes, the spicy cheese puffs and all the gracious care, the experience became second-class. For no fault of theirs, the cabin crew received an earful from the same Italian and Germanic duo that nonetheless knocked back their Chardonnays, nodding for more.

Moral of the story? Indians are not the only ones who misbehave in high places. It takes all kinds to make a world. Second — when you’ve done everything to perfection why fault on the menu card the one detail which makes the difference between cabin class and no class?

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