The Flying Carpet: The wonder that was Air India

Diwan Gautam Anand, Founding Trustee, Cuisine India Foundation writes about the tale of Air India

Photo Credit : Shutterstock,

The last-born son of prosperous parents is apt to be spoilt, especially as he was preceded by three doting sisters. Somender Oberoi was born in Lahore, educated at Modern School Delhi, followed by an honours degree at St Stephen’s College and as was the norm, a law degree from Delhi University (not surprising as his father, Sunder Oberoi, was a judge). 

What changed his life, however, was an Air India advertisement for the position ASS (officer on training). Somi, as he was fondly called, reminiscent of the Air India mascot, the maharaja (interestingly his grandfather’s sobriquet was badshah) was immediately selected and was now in Bombay (now Mumbai) doing his induction. This was in 1961. Air India was the flying carpet or the Flying Maharaja of Aviation, the world standard of style and efficiency. Because of such meticulous attention to detail and excellence, Air India topped the list of airlines in the world in 1968 as per a survey done by the Daily Mail, London. In fact, the same year, 75 per cent of Air India’s passengers were foreigners who came from countries with their own airlines. I have also heard that when Singapore wanted to launch an airline (now it is famous as Singapore Airlines), the then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew advised his team to study the high standards that had been set by Air India.

Ratan Tata, writing in a beautiful commemorative book where many Air Indians have offered tributes to JRD Tata, has said of him: Many of us who knew Jeh (JRD Tata) intimately knew that Air India was as important to him as the industrial empire he headed. While he led the Tata Empire with distinction, Air India was his personal creation and personal passion. He built it and it became the airline recognised by many international carriers as the gold standards of service. No other enterprise in the country enjoyed that type of international recognition. His personal quest for excellence, his attention to detail, and his ability to keep abreast of new technologies relating to aviation and the airline business provided the leadership that made Air India an airline of choice and gave it truly global stature.

THE BLUE NOTES 

During his induction, Somi came across JRD’s blue notes, extraordinary in their attention to detail and relentless push for excellence in all matters big and small. After every Air India flight that he took, JRD would send these ‘blue notes’ to the management, summarising his observations, including encouraging comments and scathing criticism. 

Here are some extracts from his notes starting from 1951 after he had flown Air India to Europe and back home: 

‘Chairs: I found on VT-DAR that some of the seats recline much more than the others. As a result, those seats are more comfortable. I suggest that all our seats be adjusted for a maximum reclining angle, except, of course, the rearmost seats which are limited by bulkheads.’ 

On another occasion, he wrote that he particularly enjoyed the 1960 Chateau Gruaud-Larose which was excellent, served perfectly, cool between 60- and 70-degrees F. Explained eloquently by Ms So and So ‘Second Growth. Deuxieme Grand Cru Classe in 1855. Indicative blend: Predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon with Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot. Albeit I must mention that Ms. So and So could do with a fitness regimen.   

And even more interesting is this note: ‘The tea served on board from Geneva is, without exaggeration, indistinguishable in colour from the Monsooned Malabar Coffee... I do not know whether the black colour of the tea is due to the quality (of Darjeeling tea leaves) used or due to excessive brewing. I suggest that the Station Manager at Geneva be asked to look into the matter. On the other hand, the quality of Cheese Savoury Tarts as well the Palmiers were perfect.’ 

He even elaborated. Monsoon Malabar Coffee is a delicious culture with a very bold taste and lingering texture. It is best enjoyed in rich and strong recipes like espresso, and it pairs well with chocolate dishes and should not be served cold. When served in a hot and aromatic cup, there will hardly be anything like it. One sip and you will be taken to the wild coasts of India where the monsoon winds howl and the sea roars. Undoubtedly, putting down your cup might become the most difficult thing to do. One sip is all you need to be blown away by its bold taste. 

DARJEELING TEA 

Darjeeling has a muscatel, floral aroma with overtones of peach, apricot, and sometimes even cherry. Its texture has a welcome level of dryness and astringency that adds a sense of zest or tang. Three prominent blends of Darjeeling are first flush, second flush, and third flush. Each flush is brisker than the one preceding it. Owing; partly to the oxidation levels of the tea leaves, each flush has its unique taste profile that ranges from light and delicate variants to robust and full-bodied ones.

We must choose a slow brewing variety I should think. Never make Darjeeling tea with distilled water since it will dull the quality of the liquid. Use a thermometer and heat water to about 96 degrees Celsius. You can also do this without a thermometer, in which case simply boil the kettle of water and let it sit for a few moments. Now toss in two teaspoons of Darjeeling tea leaves for a single cup. Pour the hot water over the tea and for two to three minutes. But we must verify this with experts, particularly since our commitment is to promote Indian culture and produce. 

Not surprisingly, he famously said. “It was for me a great and stirring event… seeing the Indian flag displayed on both sides of the Air India flights as she stood proudly on the apron at the airports of Cairo, Geneva, London, and New York filled me with joy and emotion.” 

Air India has a living legacy. That legacy often seems to be embattled and imperiled all around, and yet it is endowed with an uncanny and time-tested resilience. In that resilience, there is hope and promise for Air India and the rest of the aviation world. 


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