Radha U.Nair, a freelance writer based in Pune has contributed to The Hindustan Times (Bombay edition), The Deccan Herald (Bangalore), the online editions of Outlook Traveler, India Travelogue, Jet wings (in-flight magazine), the English edition of Mathrubhumi(Calicut) : India of the Past, Indian Memory Project; for ‘Sea Gull’, ‘Quarter Deck’ and the I.N.S Hamla magazines.
When I was in my senior school, we were staying at Dhanraj Mahal. At night, after lights out, our rooms would be flooded with the neon blink of Air France, Alitalia, TWA, Qantas, BOAC, JAL billboards attached to our building, all brilliantly lit up. All these international carriers had their offices inside the premises of Dhanraj Mahal.
As I drifted off to sleep they created their own magical illusions of distant lands. In the mid‘ 50’s air travel was possible only for the affluent few. But for the less fortunate, the sense of wonder which flying created, was reinforced by each of these billboards.
En-route to Churchgate, where I boarded the train to Bandra, I would see further evidence of the thrills of flying long distance by Swissair and Pan Am. There was also a sweet KLM jingle aired on Radio Ceylon , called ‘Flying the Golden Circle’ the words of which have got blurred with time, but the tune still resonates in my heart.
The best billboard by far was that of Air India , prominently put up from Marine Drive all the way to Breach Candy. Even those who did not have the good fortune to fly by Air India, knew that something special awaited them on the day they took an Air India flight , – courtesy that very adorable Maharajah.
As the years rolled by, the royally turbaned, red coated, lushly mustachioed, aquiline nosed Maharajah took on so many different incarnations, each one surpassing the last.
Each one subtly conveyed a delightful tongue in cheek humour, a bubbling love of adventure and a hint of mischief.
Today, I discovered that the Maharajah and I are the same age. All of 69. Well Well! But he is ageless, whereas time has taken its toll on me!
On my return journey from Bandra to Churchgate, the first class ladies compartment would be crowded with air hostesses of almost all the leading airlines. Impeccably dressed, they exuded an air of understated elegance and great finesse. Their presence transformed the first class compartment of the Western Railways to the glamorous interiors of a saloon car of the Orient Express.
I loved observing them and listening to their light banter, ranging from the clipped British, to the musically intoned French to the bewildering sing- song lilt of Japanese, to guttural German. Just listening to the various accents was like watching an enchanting performance.
Despite long hours of flying, they bore not a trace of jet lag. All of them were immaculately turned out not a hair out of place, be it a bouffant or a French roll. They wore the sheen of exclusiveness with élan that only international travel could impart.
To my adolescent eyes, blondes, redheads and brunettes spelt everything that was wonderfully foreign. The European and American stewardesses looked trim in their crisp blouses tucked into short tight skirts in muted shades of fawn and grey or an occasional navy blue , their feet shod in patent leather stilettos.
A lasting image was of smoky eyes which looked from half closed lids with magnificent curling lashes, as the lady flicked open a lighter and lit a slender cigarette poised delicately between her index and middle fingers. There was something alluring about this action, which had a touch of Lauren Bacall and a bit of Ava Gardener to it.
What enchanted me was the way they sat, legs neatly crossed at the ankles, their faces glowing with the subtlest of make up. They spoke softly, exchanging notes of various stopovers, interesting people they had met, perfumes, liquor and chocolates they had collected at different duty free airports.
To a gauche school girl in her teens, the perfumes they used, created a special allure .. there was Yardley, Revlon Max Factor and Dior in the air. And soon, I was after my father for something equally good for me, and he being a doting father, indulged me with my first Elizabeth Arden’s Blue Grass, and then Goya #1 Goya #3 and a perfume simply called Primrose.
There was the graceful language of their hands as they straightened out the hem of skirt, or tucked a trailing curl behind an ear, or snapped open a vanity case, or dabbed the light film of sweat from an upper lip with the tiniest of hand kerchiefs, delicately lace edged. Tissues, thank God, had not debuted then.
But the ones who stood out in this crowd, were our own Indian air hostesses in their rich silk saris, in tantalizing peacock hues which were matched with their high necked blouses accentuating their swan like necks. Their Centaur pins kept in place the gathered folds of the pallus on their shoulders.
In the course of these journeys I made friends with an Indian air hostess, Anjali Kadam. Initially she was aloof, but when we met oftener, I found her to be the very personification of charm. I was so enamoured by her grace and absolute femininity, that I named my eldest daughter Anjali.
Today air travel has become common place, globalized and therefore pedestrian. Not a single Air India hostess of today, (who are mostly matrons past their prime waging the eternal battle of the bulge, and plastered with garishly applied loud make up) can hold a candle to the 24 carat ones of the ‘50’s.