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Sunday Sentiments

  • Which would you say is the better one?

    Posted On December 23, 1998

    By Karan Thapar

    This is the story of two airlines, two cities, two experiences but one night of dreadful fog. I guess you can imagine what I’m writing about.

    A dear friend and her husband were expected from Japan. I was to leave for London. They were flying Air India. I was on British Airways. The same fog affected both of us.

    Nobiko and Masai were delayed in Bombay. It happens every year at this time but the scenes at Sahar Airport that they reported were horrific. Hundreds of passengers, perhaps as many as 300, were left to fend for themselves for over twenty hours. Air India offered no hotel, no food not even politeness or information. Families with children had nothing but a packet of chidwa to eat. Most of them did not know what it was. They could hardly have been expected to like it.

    Tired travellers, jet lagged and worried, from as far as Frankfurt or Osaka, had nowhere to rest but on the floor.

    The worst was that no one bothered. No Air India official offered any explanation for this deplorable treatment leave aside solace and comfort for the inconvenience. Time dragged on and on and on.

    At one point tea was served in the airport lounge. Admittedly it was hot and sweet but that’s not to everyone’s taste.

    “I’m a diabetic”, said an elderly European lady. “Can I have mine without sugar?”

    “Sorry”, replied the official. “This is the only tea we have”.

    When eventually the passengers were boarded for the long-delayed flight to Delhi they were kept sitting on the standing plane for more than two hours. Again, Air India stayed silent. Eventually, but not surprisingly, the frustrated passengers began fighting with the staff. Officials that looked like police had to be called.

    “Arrest me if you want”, one of the passengers said, “but first let me beat someone up. For nearly twenty four hours they’ve made fools of us whilst taking our money and claiming to provide a service.”

    One of the passengers was a Frenchman who had come for a friend’s wedding. He missed it. His anger and his anguish were visible. When he asked whether the airline could help an Air India official said he had more pressing problems to deal with.

    In comparison I found myself fog bound at Palam. Having checked-in we sat waiting for the in-coming flight from Dhaka. At 11.00 p.m., an hour and a half before the scheduled take-off, a British Airways official did the rounds informing everyone that the plane was overhead but the pilot wasn’t sure he could land. The pilot was in touch with the Delhi control tower and the official said she would come back with more details as soon as the pilot had taken a decision.

    Half an hour later she returned to tell us the flight had been diverted to Bombay. It would now return the next afternoon and our departure was therefore delayed till 5.00 p.m. Hotel accommodation at the Taj and Oberoi had been arranged and coaches were standing-by to ferry the passengers.

    I asked if I could instead go home and could I also retrieve my bags. Airlines don’t like that but it was done without demur. Miky Malhotra, the Passenger Services Manager, offered me a hot cup of tea while I waited in his office. Then, restored to my bags, he asked his colleague, Mohit Khetarpal, to find me a taxi.

    By then the fog had closed-in and the airport itself was invisible. The taxi ranks had shut down for the night and I thought I was stranded.

    “Don’t worry Sir” Mohit cheerfully reassured me. “Lets go down to the arrivals and we’ll find something there.”

    We didn’t but he persisted and eventually, using his charm, he found me a taxi-driver prepared to battle the fog and get me home.

    The funny part is that Nobiko and Masai flew club class. I wasn’t even due to fly British Airways. I had a heavily discounted ticket on United Airlines. After the

    Iraq bombings, when United suddenly cancelled, I switched to British Airways. My ticket remained the same. It was ten thousand rupees cheaper than their cheapest offer. But that did not affect the service.

    Changing Christmas

    As you can tell I’m spending Christmas in London. Although I’ve lived there for over 21 years this is only my third Christmas in that city. The first was 25 years ago. The next was last year. Its odd how nothing has changed and yet at the same time nothing is the same.

    Christmas in London is carols, roasted chestnuts and sparkling lights. In the 70s the switching-on of the lights on Regent Street was a calendar event. Members of the Royal Family were invited, television headlined the news and for days thereafter families would drive up from the county to see them. Alas all that is over. The lights are still there but no one notices them. In today’s energy saving 90s they’re mere ordinary and the council mayor presses the switch.

    In the 70s and 80s I hardly paid any attention to the carol singers. Last sunda the carol service at the church in the square opposite the flat where I am staying attracted the residents like pins to a magnet. I went too. Ten years ago the fashioners would have been embarrassed by this public display of christian sentiment. Last sunday the church was full and the singing joyous even if incorrigibly out of tune.

    However when it comes to the chestnuts the change is more personal. On winter evenings Central London streets echo to the calls of vendors roasting chestnuts on open braziers. I never could resist them and this year was no different but I’ve forgotten what to do with grubby fingers. Twenty or even ten years ago I would not have noticed how black my hands become when I’m peeling cooked chestnuts. This year I could not forget.

    I want a Furby

    Children’s toys are the big thing at Christmas. Quite honestly adults don’t count. Last year the teletubbies were the hottest present. This year it’s a cuddly animal called Furby.

    About nine inches tall, it’s a gremlin – but to me it looks more like a cross between an owl and a rat – that comes in different colours. In fact no two

    Furbies look the same. The combination of colours is different in each. More importantly, Furbies can talk, their eyes can blink, their bodies can move and their mouths can open.

    Its said that Furbies speak Furbish but in fact they are as linguistically fluent as their young owners. You can programme a Furby to speak any language you want. Smart kids have even taught their Furby to scold their parents. So at night when Mum switches off the lights Furby can complain “who said you could do that?”. When Dad asks a difficult question Furby can reply “I bet you don’t know the answer yourself!”.

    This Christmas the rush to buy your child a Furby has broken all records. Hamleys, the famous toy shop, reported 15,000 sales last sunday and a further 10,000 on monday. Shop assistants speak of customers racing up the steps with queues stretching for up to a mile. By tuesday Hamleys had resorted to an unprecedented edict : One Furby per person per visit no matter how many children you might claim to have.

    A word in explanation

    My Christmas present from Doordarshan was early this year. On the 21st they decided to deny permission for the episode of On the Record to be shown that very evening. The subject was to have been “Is this government damaged beyond repair or is it in fact about to resurrect itself?”. Its an issue on everyone’s lips yet to ensure that the BJP was fairly handled we decided to break with tradition and have two of its stalwarts to contend with P.A. Sangma from Congress and Jaipal Reddy of the Janata Dal. They were Rangarajan Kumaramangalam and K.L. Sharma. And, if it serves any purpose, they did a fine job to boot.

    Anyway, Doordarshan decided the episode was partisan and judgemental and thus struck it down. The decision was mistaken but I’m not out to pick a quarrel. This milk is spilt and I, at least, am dry-eyed. No, this is simply the background to what followed. This is the true, if perverse, focus to my concern.

    When my office phoned to give me the news I was at the opticians. Unstunted they traced me all the way to the eye-test chair. I promised to ring back. That’s when it all began.

    I tried seven London public call boxes. On each occasion the local operator answered in a jiffy. I asked for a collect call to Delhi and was told that I would

    have to be first connected to the operator in India. Each time they tried the phone would ring and ring.

    “You are in cue. Please wait.”

    I did. I waited and waited but each time I got through to the operator in Delhi he (or she) would pick up and immediately put down the phone.

    “Oh dear” said the London operator, “I don’t think they want to know you”.

    On the eighth occasion the Delhi operator was a bit slow in disconnecting. I filled that small gap with loud please. The people standing around me in London thought I had gone mad.

    “Why are you shouting?” said a voice from India. Bang went down the phone.

    It took ten more attempts to get through, that is to say ten more to find an operator in Delhi who was prepared to answer the phone. By then Doordarshan and my colleagues had decided to screen a repeat.

    So, if you did see last monday’s episode, that’s why it may have seemed uncannily familiar.

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