Stopped for lunch at a tiny “meals ready” place in the town of Poynampet in Coorg. We ordered our meals— Rs 20 each, eat your heart out — and as we waited, I looked around the room.
To my surprise, the walls were hung with a collection of fading framed prints of planes. Not just any planes, but Air India aircraft from an era that’s gone. There were small propeller jobs and a biplane, none of which I could identify. But two larger planes I could indeed identify, drawing on my plane-obsessed youth. These were a Douglas DC-3, known everywhere as a Dakota, and a Lockheed Constellation.
Shaped like a Coke bottle and embellished with three oval tailfins, the Constellation must be one of the most stylish aircraft ever made.
Prints like these evoke, almost inevitably, a certain romance about air travel. I wasn’t around in the days that Dakotas and Constellations ruled the skies, so I can’t vouch for how real the romance actually was. What I can vouch for is the absolute absence of romance in contemporary air travel. Line to enter the airport, line to check in, line at security, the security check procedure itself, line to get on the bus, line to enter the plane, and that’s all before the joys of cramped seats and paying far too much for far too little food.
Yet there’s a way — and you don’t even need to buy a ticket and fly — to rekindle it. Several of us did so, not long ago. Somewhere in the vicinity of the Bombay airport, we went plane-spotting.
Understand first that, this being the 140-character age in a thoroughly 21st-Century city, this was an entirely Twitter-driven exercise. The idea of doing it first popped up on Twitter, and the mechanics of where/when/why all got thrashed out on Twitter. This is worth mentioning, because I remember the last time I did this, in my plane-obsessed youth. I asked around in my circle of friends in Delhi, where I then lived; everyone thought I was nuts. So I went alone. This time, the word went out in ever-widening Twitter friends’ circles, and within minutes we had half-a-dozen people who wanted to come plane-spotting, and more soon after.
These were people, remember, most of whom knew each other only as esoteric Twitter names. Who therefore knew of only two things they had in common: a felicity with Twitter and a curiosity about the vast city
we live in.
Tweets flew about, discussing where the best place to spot planes was, where the best place to meet was, the best day, the best time. One particular Twitter handle was extraordinarily cooperative: any day is good, any time is good, any place is good, she said.
Early on a sunny Thursday morning — happened to be a holiday — several of us Twitter handles met at Bandra station, bought tickets and caught the next slow train to Andheri. One more handle met us there. We squeezed into three autorickshaws and rattled towards Jari Mari.
Fifteen minutes later, we were standing on a curving road lined with small industries, a cemetery and — filed away for future use — at least one tea shop. We walked past a flour shop whose owner emerged after his morning cleaning chores, carrying a smelly rat by its tail. We entered a narrow lane, winding between shacks that seemed almost to meet overhead, the occasional kid watching us file past. Only a few metres in, the clatter of the road, even on this holiday morning, was already a distant memory. The lane widened at one point into a small open area, then narrowed and closed over our heads again. Wisps of smoke and the always heady aroma of roasting rotis wafted past my nostrils.
In an abstract way, I knew we were close to one end of the runway, and that therefore planes coming in to land were just above our heads. Looking back, I suppose we must have heard some as we walked down that lane through the basti. But I have no memory, from those few minutes, of the roar of jet engines. Which may be an indication of the mild sensory overload — sights, sounds, smells — during that time.
At the far end of the basti, a number of stone stairs lead up the side of a small hillock. We climb them, and now I hear a jet. I emerge onto a flat area just in time to see a Jet Airways Boeing land. Puffs of smoke as the wheels make contact, the flaps on the wings visibly rising to help in the braking, the engines taking on a distinctly different tone once on the ground.
Bombay’s airport, laid out before me like some gigantic toy set.
We stand there — @inkv, @b50, @netra, @AnOddYellow, @sahiravik, @daftari, @tajmahalfoxtrot and also one @DeathEndsFun — for a long time, watching planes transform as they approach, from distant specks to ghostly bird-like shapes to definite jet aircraft. Some of the gang tweet pictures of the big birds, or just a mention that we’re all here doing this. Some notice the semi-regular sharp reports like Diwali fireworks going off, the thoroughly 21st-Century method airport authorities use to drive feathered birds away. We realize that we are standing next to the Hazrat Syed Jalal Dargah, a small but elegant mausoleum on top of this hillock.
No Dakotas or Coke-bottle Constellations, of course. Only their aircraft descendants: Airbus 320s and Boeing 737s, the workhorses of the Indian airline industry. But there beside the dargah, it doesn’t matter. There’s a certain child-like wonder I feel about the whole experience. Yes, call it romance.
Later, we stop for tea. Now I can hear the jets overhead. Which may be, I reflect, an indication of the quality of the tea.
P.S. There has been one more excursion since, and there will be more, to other spots in Bombay. If you’re interested, drop one of us Twitter handles a tweet.