Thursday 24 November 2016

In Air with Air India

How noticeable it is that only to humans 6 years and below, the thought of flying Air India is not depressing. To the older population the idea brings such moroseness that it makes them forget to tag their airport presence and holiday destinations on FB. Oh the international scale of omission! Why the long face one wonders. After all, it’s our national airline! It has a cute little Maharaja as an original mascot - smiling, supplicating, hand-on-the-heart; exactly what we love and vote for in the elections. The air hostesses wear Indian dresses with unique motifs of peacock feathers and peahen frowns browns. They usually serve us our very Indian idli-sambhar. Why then does our Patriotism take flight the moment we learn we’re flying AI? 

Recently, for a flight at 5:00 am we woke up (from a sleep we never slept) at 1:30 am. We reached the airport at a similarly ungodly hour. ‘The Exorcism of Emily Rose’ taught us back in 2005 that 3:00 am in the night is the devil’s hour. It is when we stood at the serpentine baggage check-in queue that we realized Hollywood can be right sometimes and also serpents in any form are satanic! With about 40 people, and their 40X3 bags, before us, this was going to be long. But why? There was only one check-in counter functioning for multiple flights. One! Not that the missing AI staffers didn’t know how many flights take off then. Probably just … striking? We stood, obviously, like others did before us, regularly looking at the length of the queue behind us for morning motivation and not in front. The kid by then made the trolley his bed. 

After 500 years or so of waiting, some AI flights were about to take off without passengers. Non VIP passengers, I mean. So someone obviously lost her patience and screamed ‘why is there only one counter running?’ A man who had by now tied his muffler around his waist in a Kalaripayat style joined in with his thunder. Fortunately for the high dome of IGI airport, the manager on duty standing safely, and invisibly, a kilometre away from the queue heard the echo. Poof! Another counter came alive, almost as if the guy was sleeping behind it all this while, waiting for the question to be asked. As if it was routine. He rubbed his eyes, settled his hair and began staring unblinkingly at his screen. (Solitaire does that to me too.) 

If the queue was moving at a snail’s pace before, it began moving at two snails’ pace now. 

When our turn finally came and we crossed the thick yellow line, we felt like we were Indian Idols selected for the Big Boss house. We sent a silent prayer of gratitude to the Maharaja and this prayer was still on its way when... ‘Check-in baggage toh nahi hai?’ spat the counter no. 1 man. Once the fire from his mouth abated we with guilty voice said yes and with shivering hands put our sole suitcase on his belt. Hand-baggage tags reached us like bullets and we felt ever-so-sorry for having taken His Highness’s precious time and humongous favour. How remiss of us! 

We almost walked away without turning our back to him, humbly bending again and again, retreating from the august presence and fortunate encounter till we finally bumped into the security check sign-board. And another queue, of course. 

So going back to paragraph 1, many of us have our reasons, accumulated like adipose tissue over the years, for forgetting to tag our airport presence and holiday destinations on FB. 

For instance when you reach the door of the AI air craft you find an air hostess or two standing there to welcome you. Except, it may sometimes feel like wiping bare feet on a coir mat which reads ‘Oh well! Come!Namastey is said as if there’s snot all over your face and if you’re lucky it’s said to the air on your right. 

You settle in and look at those mini-TVs with hope in your eyes, as does your kid. You realize they aren’t coming on and it’s no surprise. Kids take longer to deal with harsh truths of life. They press all the buttons. Press press press punch. Then they press all their parents’ buttons which miraculously may have been left un-pressed still, before deciding to watch the dark night outside instead of the Dark Knights next to them. Blankets and pillows are rare and need Raffle Tickets to get lucky enough to land some! 

But surely food is the salvation? Woe befalls you if you’re sitting in the middle of the plane, no matter that it’s the Emergency Door seat and the lives of 300 passengers depend on your pulling the handle in time. That proud-y feeling sinks away as the food carts start rolling your way. You look back. You look in the front. Coming. Coming. Still coming. Almost here. Here! ‘Sorry ma’am. We’ve run out of veg. We can give you bun and jam.’ You’re a Punjabi steam engine in a seat belt but the cork of English-speaking decency keeps the chimney blocked. A meek okay later you decide to mew ‘Excuse me. May I have two buns, please?’ And you know, in your deepest gut you know that was a wrong question to ask and bam! She says as she moves away, louder than before, ‘Sorry! We don’t give extras.’ 8 people hear it, 10 decide to look at you. No one dare look at the air hostess. Suddenly, a vision of your subzi bhaiya comes up. With a halo behind his head. A saint who gives 5-ka-dhaniya free. A saint!

Not that getting food is any guarantee of gastric satisfaction. You see, we were recently served rice with baingan ka bharta. I eat both happily! But together? They are scientifically unmixable and especially with a fork which weighs two times the weight of the whole food tray! I did find 1/4th of a parantha tucked between two rice grains. It was a perfect triangle the length of my middle finger. It was cute. But it didn’t unfurl into a circle. Coffee was served alongside our dinner with a kaam khatam karo zeal and we were left with the supernatural task of mixing-mixing to eat our dinner before the coffee went cold. Or before the trays are collected and the lights turned off. Because they were!

You see, as soon as the last tray was picked, or maybe even before that, the plane went dark. Helped with using the toothpicks but still! Did I hear an air steward announce ‘Lights out! Off to bed!’ No no. It must be my memories of the nunnery interfering with my sense of reality. Anyhow, nearly all the reading lights came on immediately. People had things to do. Important things to read. Funny things to say. Fun holidays to plan. Strange dinner things to wipe off their mouths. In that silver haze what followed is sleep. It better follow, actually! To sleep is human but to snore in an AI flight is divine, because it’s that deep sleep only which can take you away from the goriest and grumpiest of … 

Anyway. Just like all nails scratching a wall must reach the floor some time and stop, so comes to an end your Air India flight. You land. Once before you heard the Captain’s voice asking the crew to just sit down now for takeoff. You again hear a thank you for being in air with Air India from the said Captain, who is impeccably dressed and bordering on handsome but who sounds exactly like a doctor’s handwriting.

The seat-belt sign is off and everyone is up as if they spotted an ATM machine with no queues. The plane is full of hustle and bustle and truant burps and sighs of relief. And amidst all the din and ado, there suddenly shines a ray of hope. Unexpectedly. You realize you hadn’t seen that shine for the longest time. 

The air hostess at the door has a big wide smile for you. A smile! And so do you! For her! 

I guess some goodbyes are sweeter than hellos. Especially when in the national carrier, the nation has finally reached where it wanted to go. Chalo. Kaam khatam hua. Asha kartey hain aap ek baar phir humein …  

Pic from Memegen

Thursday 10 November 2016

'Band, Baaja, Boys!' by Rachna Singh

If you’ve read Rachna Singh’s books before, that she is funny enough to make all bones turn into ticklish ribs is a fact that needs no establishing. Her humour flows easy, is derived from life as we know it and makes no attempt to fashionably offend. If it does, and when it should, at best it feels like a pinch! So when I picked up ‘Band, Baaja, Boys!’ I was expecting it to ‘launch a million laughs’, as Rachna herself aimed. It did! What it also did was create a most memorable portrait of Allahabad such that we see it as if sitting in a rickshaw, riding through its narrow lanes, missing the paan spittle by a hair’s breath, peeking into the houses as we pass by and all that with an expert guide. 

Band, Baaja, Boys!’ is a filmy-sweet story with a baraat of characters and a high dose of Hinglish. Each character is created unique in his localness or her quirks, his love angles or her bra straps. Man, woman or neighbor, every one you meet contributes to the Bajpai family’s story; that of 21-year-old Binny’s parents, Brajesh and Kumud, looking for an eligible match for her, while she herself tries fixing one for herself from a handful of bachelor boys. Simple, often silly, day-dreams define the characters, making them sweet as sherbet and bumbling in their small-town aspirations. They endear you individually and yet together paint a picture of the many gully-mohallas that still exist in evolving cities like Allahabad; those spaces living hesitantly at cusps of modernity even when the posher areas hurtle towards an English-speaking “open-mindedness”. 

The portrait of Allahabad then is the portrait of its people; these people in Manphodganj going about their daily businesses and who Rachna brings alive. This portrayal happens in two ways. Mostly it is the hilariously detailed descriptions of characters and the episodes unfurling around them that immensely entertain while showing us Allahabad at close quarters. But at various places in the story of Binny (of parental match-making and romeo romances) the reader also senses the presence of ideas and customs which keep this society where it is - enveloped away from forward-looking views about marriage, daughters and even love.

The fun and funny first.

Rachna’s magnifying glass leaves nothing  uncooked in this Allahabadi sun. Whatever comes under it becomes smoking funny! And a lot does in this place where ‘From Delhi’ was the ultimate style statement’. Girls and boys sat on separate sides, and while ‘the girls took notes the boys watched them taking notes.’ In the Bajpai family ‘an alcoholic was one who could spell r-u-m’ and precious Coke was served in glasses which ‘might as well have served eye-drops’. On the roads ‘Vikrams’ not only transported you to the ‘Minorities Institute of Technology’ but also ‘imparted sage advice via words of wisdom on their rears’. ‘Van Halen’ on t-shirts was understood as ‘forest that is shaking’ and people were rechristened ‘bijli-ghar-waley Sahay’ if the place of work was so enviable! Parents had folders called ‘Tarun Chaubey: Virtues, Merits and Assets’ for daughters and ‘padosi sun lenge’ was the surest way to calm the mother of a truant daughter down... and so on and such fun!

However, amidst all the comic happenings of the book was a note that sometimes broke the laughter, a poignant presence throughout the joy ride. 

Band, Baaja, Boys!’ uses humour through witty one-liners and topsy-turvy events to train our lens on what still teems in many, many societies in our cities. How ‘a fair complexion almost makes up for the missing tube of flesh between the legs’. How ‘ignore the dogs’ was the precious advice parents raised their daughters with. But no parents told their son, Don’t be a dog.’ In times of need it was caste which defined friendship and in Manphodganj ‘I can make your life miserable if you come in my way’ was no empty threat. Directionless boys like Raja came to the cities to study with dreams of feudal love in their eyes while marriageable girls like Binny were kept from joining hobby classes. Mothers like Kumud fantasized about NRI grooms and foreign lands where they could wear jeans with their bindi and so proudly showcased their decorated daughters to prospective parents in law, while yet they swore to not let them go through what they themselves did at the hands of the in laws. Sonless and childless mothers stayed a distance away from new born babies.  The elite watched the poor die in floods. The rich-and-spoilt lured gullible girls into shameful acts. And so …

Binny had pushed out her feelings of inadequacy caused by not being the boy her parents wanted. Brajesh had pushed out his frustrations that arose with the monotony of his existence. Kumud had pushed out her yearnings for a son. Each life operated within the safe, clean niche it had resolved to whittle out for itself.

In such a scenario, where Brajesh sleeps fitfully, equally worried about the market for his bras and his beti, Binny as a heroine could have been a swash-buckling, sword-wielding leader. You know, someone who freed her sex (or herself!) from marital objectification and even from being seen as second to boys. But Rachna’s Binny isn’t that heroine, and as you read you realize the author herself did not aspire to create her that way. Her motivations for falling dupattas and flickering eyelids begin from something as simple as a need to feel wanted by someone, and end there too. 

Binny is happy enough to be the ‘mistress of deception’. She is no trend-setting girl who shatters the glass ceiling and sets an example for pious friends like Manjul. At best, Binny is like a pocket patakha, a girl from a Hindi-medium school ‘who got no attention and resolved to show the boys how dumb they were.’ Aware of her sexuality and sweetly manipulative enough to enjoy her moments of escape, Binny nonetheless has no aspiration outside of what her parents have for her – that of being a married VIP. So, even as she does the unthinkable when the novel spirals to a punchy climax in Delhi, Binny only manages to somewhat scratch the glass ceiling she was born under. 

Women in ‘Band, Baaja, Boys!’ are in control in their own sweet ways, but it’s more like enjoying the freedom to ride the Scooty till the end of town, and duly turning back home before it got dark. Or wearing the nightgown of your choice but with the big bindi intact. While they fail to become powerful-progressive heroines of novels, they remain successful in reminding us of how they are, with their limited controls and cushioned dreams, from among'st us all. We also correct ourselves as we realize how Manphodganj isn’t just in Allahabad, but in our "modern" cities too.

Band, Baaja, Boys!’ was also about another realization, for me. This is the first book with a heavy reliance on Hinglish that I have read, with even chapter titles all mixed up! My relationship with the English Language is rather like a schoolmarm’s, and from a distance Hinglish was but a hybrid I viewed as foreign to my reading taste. As I saw the characters converse in their vernacular styles, with their geographically unique words (‘bhaak’) and in indigenous accents (blew colour), I sensed how reading them in their language made them flesh-and-blood to me, even when one of them ‘suicided himself’! I could hear them, almost, as one sold bras on the road with ‘Bra…braaaaas….Taaze Braas…Bra le lo’. I could visualize Allahabad going ‘Axe-kyuj me?’ And I could see how many jokes got a punch because how can ‘paisa chaddi ki chor jeb mein hai’ be said any other way. Humour in vernacular and vernacular in humour! 

There’s another thing. It is very difficult to write a language you know correctly so incorrectly that it garners the sought response. Know what I mean? Rachna’s book includes instances of such literal translations as would make you roar with laughter and in turn create a very true-to-life image of the context. For instance, Raja, preparing for the Civil Services, insists on writing letters to his mother only in English - ‘How can I tell Amma but I am telling. I am fixing daughter in law for you. For last six months, I am fixing a girl for you. I am seeing her from my coaching centre window, seeing her fatherji, then also going and seeing her house. Quality of all is good…caste is not the same Amma…but she is having our same caste sanskaars.’ 

I remain in an Open Relationship with Hinglish without fully committing myself to its merits, as yet, because I also see how this book can truly be appreciated only by those who know Hindi, however little.  ‘Band, Baaja, Boys!’ thus becomes not just a book about the Hindi heartland but also belongs there in its truest sense. In this, and this alone, lies its limitation. 

All of Rachna Singh’s books seem to be inspired from personally experienced cities and situations. The author and the narrator are always one and stories read like memoirs, even when they aren’t. This lends her works a flavour of authenticity hard to ignore, even if it makes you wonder as her regular reader if she is unable to dissociate her personal self from her art. For this book too she admits in typical coinage ‘I belongs to Allahabad and I am proud of it’. After reading what she does with it you see that it is actually Allahabad which belongs to Rachna instead! 

Read it to enjoy its hilarity and its delightful frivolousness. But also read to wonder with Binny ‘Marriz…marriz…why human beens need to do a marriz? Why?’ 

'Band, Baaja, Boys!' by Rachna Singh is an Amaryllis publication, 2016.

[Review was commissioned by the author. Views are my own.] 

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