Air India Airbus A320neo
An Air India Airbus A320 takes off in Paris Image Credit: Reuters

A Facebook friend posted about her first plane ride, and I could not recollect if I had taken the Air India flight or Saudia Airlines, to Jeddah from Hyderabad, many years ago.

She said her institute flew her in First Class. Another friend chipped in and said he remembered the plane fare on his first flight had cost his newspaper about Rupees 300-something, which today will buy you a box of 100 tea bags of the finest India Darjeeling tea.

Then recently, the news was flashed that Air India has finally been privatised and the government had found a buyer, and believe it or not, the successful bidder was the same group that had launched Air India, India’s first airline, years ago.

The only thing I remember about my flight on Air India, since I am a shameless foodie, was that I was served hot breakfast — the omelette was heavenly and the chicken tikka rice for lunch was mouth-watering.

Whe I stopped flying AI

Over the years I stopped flying Air India, and I was not the only ‘unpatriotic’ guy, as the flights got delayed more and more, passengers went berserk spending hours at the airport, and being offloaded at the last moment. (My wife once witnessed a mini-riot inside the plane as she and her fellow sweltering passengers, sat on the tarmac for hours waiting to take off for Delhi).

I am glad the airline is back in the hands of Tata Sons and hopefully the airline under better management, will cease to be such a loss-making machine. I was also happy to once again see the airline’s mascot, the Maharaja, with his fabulous moustache and a flashy turban on his head.

The government had dumped the Maharaja because he represented the older times, the period when these hedonistic rulers ruled over various Indian states, shooting tigers, flaunting their trophy wives and huge diamonds (one of the diamonds is now embedded in the Queen’s crown).

If you want a fascinating read about these richie-rich guys, who were the equivalent of the corporate chiefs and mutual fund managers of today, check out The Maharajahs of India by Ann Morrow, though some Indians feel it has a racial slant.

I was rummaging through my souvenir items (which are now stored in a Addidas shoebox) and could not find anything linked to Air India, but I found a boarding pass of Kish Airlines.

Kish is a tiny island, a short flight away from Dubai, in the UAE. It is the Cannes of Iran, where people come from the mainland to holiday and where the Iranian film directors come to shoot movies.

Kish was the place many expatriates from Dubai went — back in the day — to get their residence visa extended and I was on the flight with a bunch of foreign workers from the Philippines, India and Egypt, to follow this story.

Going to Kish was cheaper for these expatriates than going back home and applying for the extension of their visa or getting another new one.

Back to Air India, and during my tenure in Saudi Arabia, it was a big airline as it had the lucrative Gulf route and ferried thousands of workers from India.

The airline crew knew most of the passengers were contract workers and had got the ticket home, for free, as part of their salary package. I once saw an enraged stewardess shout, “Sit down, NOW”, to one of the passengers. On Saudia, on the other hand, we were treated equally, and no one thought of us as “those workers”.

I hope Air India does well in its second innings, though the airline industry is presently in doldrums due to the pandemic.

There is only one request to the new management and that is to please do not play shehnai wedding music on the plane’s audio system.

Mahmood Saberi is a storyteller and blogger based in Bengaluru, India. Twitter: @mahmood_saberi