Friday, June 20, 2008

Jet SFO Go or Bum-Showers at 35k feet

Titanic did happen – but I still found myself, both by design and default, on the inaugural flight of Jet Airways from Mumbai to San Francisco (via Shanghai) last Saturday. It was an unusual sight at the Check-in area. The airline top-brass – among them Jet’s executive face in India Saroj Datta - were sitting cross-legged on the floor for a full-fledged Puja and Havan with a dapper young pundit and a large TV Crew in attendance. A couple of Chinese men (presumably officials from the code-share partner ) and two Europeans pilots looked on bemusedly. While boarding we once again saw the priest coming out of the aircraft with his entourage – obviously having done another little ceremony inside the cockpit. I must say that it did something to quieten the superstitious murmurs of the heart.

The aircraft rolled out on the dot of 11.15 but then was held up – as is normal in Mumbai these days for nearly an hour on the tarmac for air-traffic delays. On the plane we were welcomed with a pack of Ferrero Rochers and a yellow rose-bud ( a large box and an orchid for the Biz Class and one could see a gooey chocolate cake doing the rounds in the First).

At Shanghai, the Chinese went a step further. A red carpet was laid out on the entire length of the aerobridge and huge red-lanterns hung on both sides of the passage way (tho’ a co-passenger commented, somewhat unfairly I thought, that it was the most tacky red-carpet she had ever seen). But, one received the ultimate reception on reaching San Francisco. As the aircraft taxied into the bay – a fleet of fire-tenders showered the air-craft with water sprays. The pilot informed that, this is an old custom followed for ships on their first call at a port. At the exit there were smiling airport officials waiting with boxes of chocolate and a welcome letter. Wonder what are the courtesies we extend for the debut flight of a foreign airline into India.

The flight was packed to its gills – except probably a few cabins in the front. “Naresh has pulled off a coup by getting the Chinese to grant landing rights for Shanghai” – remarked a very distinguished looking gentleman, an American-Chinese, who was ahead of me in the immigration queue (obviously an important person – as he had his personal valet receive him from the aircraft gate). " Now they won't give it to any other airline and this would be the shortest flight to the West-coast from India. You will see - it's going to be always full" - he added with an air of certainty. My curiosity aroused – I couldn’t help asking – what took him to India. “ Oh, I am a retired man who likes to travel the world – he said, covering his identity in the garb of modesty - had gone only for the inauguration at Naresh’s invitation”. Come to think of it – it’s hard to believe that just two years ago Jet was being denied permission to fly into the US. Its friends like him, I suppose, who help Mr Goyal open doors.

The in-fight service was great – warm, friendly and efficient as one has come to expect naturally from Jet and has learnt to forget on American and European carriers. There were quite a few Chinese among the cabin crew and announcements were being made in Chinese in addition to Hindi and English. Some of the Indian staff I spoke to were going to Shanghai and SFO for the first time, They were naturally excited at – what was like a new horizon of opportunity opening up for them. And, why not ? You can see this well-earned confidence in their dis-arming smiles and feel it in their gentle touch on the elbow or a light tap on the shoulder with which they get errant pot-bellied passengers to sit-down when the ‘fasten seat-belts’ signs are on.

The touch-down in San Francisco was late by about 2 hours for the accumulated delays of hold-ups at Mumbai and Shanghai. Finally, we can be proud of an international airline of our own that compares with the best in the world. It’d be interesting to imagine what JRD’s Air-India would have been today – had it not suffered the rape of nationalization through half a century.

While the predominantly Indian crowd on board was visibly overjoyed with the ‘desi khana’ and the Indian movies (including a fairly wide selection of regional films) – I for one appreciated a particular feature inside plane - the ‘bidet’ (bum-shower) in the toilet. A very customer friendly innovation for an IBS stricken race, I thought to myself while pressing the flush 35k feet over the Pacific.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Serenity by the lake and Iilish under the fly-over

The Shillong of ‘Shesher Kobita’ is gone – like most places one read and romanticized over in our youth. The same fate of other hill-stations has also befallen Shillong – ruined by unplanned growth. Being the capital of Meghalaya and the seat of the Council of North Eastern States has further contributed to its concretization.

It’s difficult to imagine the walks Labanya and Amit went on. Ward’s Lake in the center of town is an apology. And, I wouldn’t even dare take that drive to Cherrapunji – now called the ‘wettest desert’ in the world.

The Pinewood Hotel remains tucked away on Rita Road above the Raj Bhavan - now run by the government, it’s a shadow of its former self. But, unlike the desecrated Puri BNR (handed over on contract to a Lalu crony – a hotelier from Patna ), it retains much of its old character – the sprawling suites, the garden, the friendly staff ( if lacking the finesse of the ancient bearers from the days of the Raj ) and, most importantly, the wood paneled bar. The worst casualty, perhaps, is the dining room. It’s run down and looks a bit seedy - tho' the food, I am sure not a patch on what it used to be, is still the best you can get in Shillong (which can’t boast of too many interesting culinary options or choice of restaurants).

Admitted, it’s not easy to know a place and the people on quick business trips – when for the better part of the day ( and, often in the evenings as well ) one is cooped up in meetings. But, a visit to the bar at the local Club usually gives a distilled sense of the social scene. The Shillong Club is as old as the town itself – founded in 1874, when Shillong was declared as the Civil Station of the Khasi and Jaintia Hills. The new Club House re-constructed after the fire of the 70s has lost its heritage look and feel - something the other colonial institution – the Shillong Golf Club, the third oldest in India – has managed to retain. Once a preserve of British Officers and Tea Planters from Assam, the club is today the watering hole of local traders – who are the new dominant set.
In the midst of all this is a well kept secret across the Bada-pani lake called Ri kynjai - a breath-takingly beautiful alpine-style resort. Promoted by the owners of the Centre-Point (the best known business hotel in town ), the architecture was inspired by traditional Khasi thatched huts built over stilts ( the aerodynamically friendly structures in the shape of upturned boats are designed to face the squalls and storms of the region ). As you look out from its huge French windows –into the serene waters of the lake, you begin to appreciate - a little - why Shillong was ever called Scotland of the East.

On my now regular trips to Shillong – I take a mandatory stop at one of the many Sylheti-Bengali eateries in Guwahati. My favourite being Soham – a tiny but clean joint under the Ulubari fly-over ( near the editorial office of The Telegraph ). There’s also Ramu’s Hotel across the road – which many prefer - but I think Soham’s better in terms of its hygiene, ambience and even the quality of food. A lunch home for sales people and the staff of nearby offices – it serves the most mouth watering, Pabda, Iilish and Brahmaputra Chitol in home-style curries and a mean Mangshor-jhol. Gandha-leboo, kacha lanka and shutkir-acchar are essential accompaniments for satiating the senses.

On the last trip, I was introduced to a new restaurant serving authentic gourmet Assamese cuisine called ‘Delicacy’ – in Ganeshgudi (next to the Dispur Polyclinic on the way to the Secretariat ). It’s more up-market than Paradise ( where I had been earlier ) and offers a wider choice in the menu – ranging from pork, duck and pigeons in the meat section to a whole array of fish preparations all served in traditional “kanshar” (bell metal ) thalis. Tho’ somewhat comparable to Bengali recipes by way of gastronomical genre, Assamese food is less on spices and have more delicate and subtle flavours – gained from the greater use of vegetables, herbs and leaves ( sometimes also fruit - such as dried mangostein, I am told) in their cooking – imbibing distinct influences of other culinary traditions of the North-east and its neighbouring regions, including – probably – the lower reaches of China ( Yunnan ). It doesn’t exactly set my tastes-buds ablaze but the Tenga, ( a light sour curry made with tomato ) is one dish that I have come to like over time – thanks to the slow induction by Utpala (of the "Mosaic" fame ) in Delhi and the Bezboras of Pune.