Very Public Transportation

I’ll have to confess: ever since I was a kid, I’ve wanted to fly Air India. Many years ago, someone told me the world’s best Indian restaurant was the Air India flight from New York to London. London was someplace I wanted to see, and getting there with good food just made it all the more attractive. But when I finally did get to go to London, economy won out over gastronomy, and I flew, uhhh, whatever was cheapest from Austin.

But it was “whatever was cheaper” that got me onto Air India for this trip to the States which started on Monday. Rock-bottom prices from Paris made the deal inevitable, although I’d been warned that the flights originate in India and can be late. Mine was — by 90 minutes. But it was an education.

It had originated in Bombay — or Mumbai, if you will — and there weren’t many places for us Paris-boarding passengers. But that didn’t matter, because I had a center group of seats in the aging 747 all to myself. But I’d never been on a plane like this. Not the equipment — I’ve been on plenty of 747s — but the social scene. I’ve never been to India, but I’d be willing to bet that a significant number of my fellow-passengers were flying for the first time, and likely not urban dwellers. How else, after all, to explain the video demonstrating how to flush the toilet? (Which, I hasten to add, unlike on other flights I’ve been on, they did, thank heavens).

Another way you knew it was an Indian flight was that the little map with the little plane on it was interrupted now and again by a screen that said “Physical features map only. NO POLITICAL BORDERS DEPICTED.” Take that, Pakistan! Oh, and the entertainment, which alternated between the most lascivious (and unintentionally funny) rock videos ever (yes, there were a couple of clowns in that party scene where the guy gets shot, although what they were doing there was obscure) and Hindi TV shows, American TV shows I’d never heard of, a film about basketball which reinforced every stereotype about black people the NAACP has been trying to overturn since Reconstruction, and a ludicrous Indian film about entrepreneurs called Corporate, which I dozed through.

Not that I could have accessed the soundtrack if I’d wanted. I was delighted to see a channel of Indian classical music, but apparently the sound system didn’t work at all. Not surprising: the video was so out of whack that everything showed in sepia, giving an appropriately antique touch to things.

But the food made up for it. With drinks we were served some astonishing little chips, pillow-shaped, made from potato flour, and spiced just enough to make me sit up and take notice. They were called, appropriately enough, Mo’pleez, although I notice the website given on the bag is a list of janitorial services. After a decent interval, the meal was wheeled around, and I got the Indian one, non-vegetarian, with a chicken curry called Dum Ka Murg, okay pilau rice, and a nice dal. I even ate the dessert, which was very low-sugar, unlike any Indian dessert I’ve ever had, something called Shahi Tukla, which had little cubes of what seemed to be dense bread in a sauce made from concentrated milk, the whole thing dusted with crushed pistachios. I’d tried to order a Gujarati meal from the bewildering variety offered by the Air India website, but twice got back an enigmatic e-mail saying Mr. Gomes was not in the database. I don’t care about Mr. Gomes, I want my Gujarati feast!

When the plane touched down in Newark the entire cabin rose as one man and started stampeding to the door, despite the fact that the plane was still taxiing down the runway. The cabin attendants beat them back, and only had to restore order twice more.

India is a place about which I’ve always quipped that I read about it obsessively to keep from actually going there. I think this flight actually added a bit of reinforcement to that theory, although I gotta say, I can’t wait to see what the grub on the return is going to be like. But…I’ve got to wait a week to find out.

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Footnote: The biggest disappointment about not being able to hear the audio on the flight was that the classical channel heavily featured my new favorite Indian classical musician, Amjad Ali Khan, who plays with all the clarity of a well-performed Mozart piano sonata. He communicates so well that I believe someone who knew nothing whatever about Indian classical music could pretty much get the basics after one of his better-performed ragas (the titles I’d point you to are on CDs I burned from eMusic downloads back in Berlin, though). Anyway, I was walking past Carnegie Hall yesterday and was astonished to see that Amjad Ali Khan, Amaan Ali Khan, and Ayaan Ali Khan were playing there on Sunday, with tickets maxing out at $90. I don’t know if anyone reading this has that kind of dough or that kind of interest, but boy, if I had the money, and was going to be in New York at that time (I’ll be in Montreal), I’d have walked in and snapped one up. Adventurous New Yorkers take note.

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