My son-in-law had upgraded us to “Premier Class” for our flight from Chicago to Los Angeles. As we settled into the comfortable-looking leather seats, the haggard, harassed, aged air hostess lumbered up to us and demanded in a rasping voice, “Anything to drink?” Why not? So, “Champagne,” said I. “No champagne,” came the response. “A glass of white wine, perhaps.” “Sure,” she said, flinging a plastic cup of the most ghastly plonk at me, and a diet coke for the wife. There followed an unappetising plate of cold pasta (no choice, the lone item on the menu). Arriving in LA, it took nearly an hour for our luggage to surface. Where on earth was the famed excellence of the services industry in the private sector? Oh, Air India, why don’t you fly to the West Coast?
So, we took the train on the return journey from Los Angeles to Chicago. That’s 2,500 miles through six states—California, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas, Illinois—and over 45 hours, about as long as from Thiruvananthapuram to Delhi. My first. To discover that the USA is not, as one had imagined, a congeries of similar-looking airports, but a land of the most amazing geographical diversity and social inequalities. For even as the train pulled out of Los Angeles, the underside of American prosperity came into view, ramshackle shacks housing the really poor and deprived, the railway track, home to the flotsam and jetsam of the unsuccessful, abandoned pick-ups in the backyard, junk and twisted scrap, not suburban gardens, to deck the environment, The Grapes of Wrath in reverse gear. More:
This debate took place at the Royal Geographical society on 27 September 2011. The Participants were Mani Shankar Aiyar, William Dalrymple, Suhel Seth and Patrick French. The audio below is courtesy Intelligence Squared.
Basking in the hospitality of Pakistan, remembering the thrill of the liberation of Bangladesh, and trying to be a good guest of Sri Lanka. Mani Shankar Aiyar in Open:
I travel a great deal, but rarely for tourism as such. Almost all of my travel is people-oriented: meeting friends, making new ones, attending seminars and conferences, delivering speeches. What looking around I do tends to be incidental, not so much because I am not interested but because my journeys are usually fairly short and much of my time is taken up huddled for the purpose that brings me there. Far too many of my foreign trips are only airport-to-airport, with a hotel thrown in between.
This almost inevitably makes Pakistan my favourite destination—as I have more friends in Pakistan than enemies in India. So, I am always assured of an exceptionally warm welcome, and I bask in it. People are eager to talk and to listen. They want to ask why things are so wrong and suggest what might be done to set them right. Frankness is not overlaid with rancour. Bewilderment rather than hostility is what I encounter. The desire for peace is overwhelming, the road to get there foggy in the extreme. There is also a sense of helplessness over who can do what. Caught between military rule and mindless terrorism, Pakistan’s ordinary citizen feels disempowered; doing something about it lies in someone else’s hands. When things appear to be moving forward, there is relief; when there are setbacks and roadblocks, there is an aching desire to remove the hurdles, combined with painful recognition of the inability of the Pakistani in the street or mosque to influence, let alone determine, the outcome. More:
Humour works in a context. Muff that up-and the joke’s on you. Mani Shankar Aiyar on Shashi Tharoor’s “holy cows” and “cattle class” tweet in Outlook:
Let me share with you another tale when I got myself into a Tharoor-like jam. I had been appointed the conference spokesman at the 7th Nonaligned Summit held in New Delhi in 1983. NAM conferences always get off to a genteel start with everyone politely pretending to listen to the set speeches of the leaders-and then the going gets rough, everyone fighting his corner till the last possible minute. In consequence, the agonised question of Cambodia/Kampuchea got untangled only at three in the morning. I immediately summoned a press conference to brief the media. One correspondent asked why NAM outcomes always emerged at such unearthly hours. Turning to the NAM symbol mounted behind me, I remarked that it was perhaps because the symbol should be changed from the dove to the owl. The Hindi press went berserk the next morning, saying I had described the distinguished leaders gathered-more than 100 of them from across the region-as “ulloos”, while the Western media, notably The New Yorker, sang paeans of praise over my wit and humour. Indira Gandhi, like Queen Victoria, was not amused-and I was promptly suspended, but, happily, a bit like Tharoor, restored to my perch shortly thereafter.
What the Tharoors and the Aiyars have to remember is that all the world is not St Stephen’s College and that what gets by as a PJ (Punjabi Joke) in Allnutt Court can get all of Ludhiana baying for your blood even for calling it a PJ. In a multilingual, multicultural society a joke has to be tailored to the audience. Indeed, even a gesture has to be tailored to the audience, as Tharoor discovered when he foolishly tried to teach a Kerala audience true patriotism by holding their hands across their chests like Americans do when they sing their national anthem. The Malayalis were not amused. Nor was I. Imagine learning patriotism from the Yankees! More: