Not All Water Sparkles
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.
The journey began with unintelligible announcements in incomprehensible accents. “There even are places where English completely disappears/ In America, they haven’t spoken it for years!”: Prof Higgins in My Fair Lady. Fortunately, we have our daughter with us who, after eight years in America, serves as our interpreter. The staff are hospitable enough, but prone to behavioural excess, shouting aloud through the intercom, “Janet, party of two; Paul, party of one; Mani, party of three. Come down. Now.” in stentorian tones. No, “Please”, no “Mr”, no “Sir”, just stentorian commands. Democracy in America apparently means the right of the lower orders to be rude to their social superiors. This goes by the name of “customer care”.
Rocky Mountain Kung Pow
I wake next day to the most spectacular scenery: we’re skirting the southern Rockies and have stopped for a moment at Williams Junction to allow travellers more fortunate than us to disembark for the bus to the Grand Canyon. But never mind. We soon enter Moonland. Hills of rock climbing wildly into the sky, stuck against one another by who knows what law of gravity. Stark, forbidding, awesome. Interspersed with scrubland and sage brush. But I do not see any cactii. An occasional elk, little scampering creatures rushing into what cover the desert offers.
A sign along the hillside announces the home of Chief Yellowhorse and his tribe. The sierra along the horizon is called the Blood of Christ after a Spanish priest who fell to his knees as the sun came up blood-red over the mountain snow, crying, “Sangre de Jesus”. Pretty little stations, built in the style of the Spanish colonialists, bearing names like Lamy and Raton, are no more than cement sidewalks alongside the rail track. Incongruously, a battered building comes into view, proclaiming itself, “Great Wall, Best Chinese Food in Town”. Do they have a second Chinese takeaway for a population of 189? The highway runs along the tracks, but several minutes pass before a lonely car, an suv more often than not, inches its way past giant container trucks, petroleum tankers, and heavy-duty carriers. There are dirt-tracks and crumbling wooden houses set in barren dust-laden homesteads. The electric poles, amazingly, are not made of steel, but tree trunks.
To aid the uninformed tourist (us), the Southwestern Chief, as the train is called, is outfitted with a sightseeing carriage where a running commentary on the history and attractions of the places we race through is recited. Unfortunately, the lady manning the microphone is barely able to read, much to the amusement of the passengers, stumbling over her lines and making a fine mess of the Spanish words and names with which the text is overrun (this land was a Spanish colony stolen from the Mexican Aztecs before the American settlers stole it from both the Spaniards and the Native Americans, who were decimated if they resisted—“Red Indian” is no longer politically correct). The next day, we’re told the food has run out. Lunch is a choice between Greek salad, a concoction of limp lettuce leaves with a stinking slice of Feta goat cheese thrown in, or a veg burger. Take it or leave it. I choose to leave it. No tea, we’ve run out. Sorry, no coffee either, we’ve run out. However, we have arrived at Chicago Union. Oh, Indian Railways, where are you?
Last week, I had occasion...
To recall flying to JFK from Chicago on Jetblue, an all-economy carrier. Comfy seats, leg room, excellent cabin service, on time. Faith in American private enterprise restored, I spoke to Mallya on the need for an airline for the upper segment of our modest middle class.
Mani Shankar Aiyar is a diplomat-turned-politician
Apropos Mani Shankar Aiyar’s American Diary (Jul 30). At the end of the piece, he mock-exclaims: “Oh Indian Railways, where are you?” This from Aiyar! The man suffers from sycophantic myopia, like most Indian politicians. For all his pious statements, I really don’t think the ‘socially superior’ Aiyar has ever travelled in the general compartment of an Indian railway carriage. Maybe he should take a Delhi-Patna train trip, standing near the toilets, like the ‘social inferiors’ do. Or try the Mumbai locals in peak hours.
Sanjay, Tempe, US
What else did you notice, Mr Aiyar? Did you notice that you can kiss on the streets, but can’t piss on them.
Rohit Desai, Mount Prospect, US
Why is Outlook publishing such drivel? This is the sort of small-minded, black-and-white rant you find in a personal blog. What’s the point of visiting another country if all you want to do is disparage it?
Mina Menon, Dubai
What a jerk Aiyar is! Sometime ago he acted snooty because he is from the much-vaunted St Stephen’s (whatever that means). Now he makes no bones about being ‘socially superior’ to the working class. With politicians like him, India can never hope to overcome its age-old social inequalities.
Rakesh Khanna, Chicago
I’ve always admired Aiyar’s frankness. This diary is one more reason to do so.
Sajid Omer, Kannur
Lack of courtesy or whatever Aiyar felt in the US is just considered informal here. He should try Kerala for a taste of real lack of manners. His friends, the Communists, have an ideological zeal for the cult of deliberate insult.
K.S.C. Nair, Indianapolis, US
It’s strange that Aiyar has discovered this picture of American ‘progress’ this late; he must have visited the US dozens of times as minister of this or that. It’s for this reason that his comparisons between the railways of the two countries look odd—is it honest comparison, or search for brownie points?
H.C. Pandey, Delhi
I am sure Aiyar has no qualms in showing his sarkari sacred thread to hapless Air India and Indian Railways employees, who probably fall at his feet as soon as he graces the vehicle. No wonder he is disappointed in the US. Tough luck!
In India, democracy means one set of rules for the aam janata and another for the ruling class. With his pucca accent and Doon school pedigree, he expects to be treated differently. When exposed to a system where one rule applies for all, the likes of Mr Aiyar note only rudeness of the ‘socially inferior’.
Dipto, New York
A temporary visitor to the US, my wife and I recently travelled by Amtrak train for five hours. The announcements were indeed tough to understand but the all-Black staff was very courteous and helpful. Most passengers were Blacks, apart from a few poor-looking whites.
R. Narasimhan, Chennai
Mani shankar aiyar is an arrogant, foul mouthed idiot and a Congress pig. He is the kind of Indian who bring bad name to their country when they go abroad.
Why is Outlook publishing such drivel? This is the sort of small-minded, black-and-white rant that goes on a personal blog, if that. And what's the point in visiting another country when all you do is disparage it and compare it to another?! Why not just stay at home?
Need more of such diaries,looks America still remains undiscovered.
Well, every thing is not so negative about mani. He has no taint in cairn and KG basin like the ones before and after him. Probably thats why he is out of government. He should understand bragging rights are reserved for only IITians with first 100 or 200 rank and not any where including oxford, princeton or stephans.
>>USP of deliberate insult.
Very experienced diplomat with "in-your-face-insults-skills" available for suitable opportunities, capable of igniting a nuclear war between jains and aamish, with unparalleled ability to kiss up to higher-orders ...
we don't carry many of those, so come and get em while supplies last ;-)
We at Outlookindia.com welcome feedback and your comments, including scathing criticism
1. Scathing, passionate, even angry critiques are welcome, but please do not indulge in abuse and invective. Our Primary concern is to keep the debate civil. We urge our users to try and express their disagreements without being disagreeable. Personal attacks are not welcome. No ad hominem please.
2. Please do not post the same message again and again in the same or different threads
3. Please keep your responses confined to the subject matter of the article you are responding to. Please note that our comments section is not a general free-for-all but for feedback to articles/blogs posted on the site
4. Our endeavour is to keep these forums unmoderated and unexpurgated. But if any of the above three conditions are violated, we reserve the right to delete any comment that we deem objectionable and also to withdraw posting privileges from the abuser. Please also note that hate-speech is punishable by law and in extreme circumstances, we may be forced to take legal action by tracing the IP addresses of the poster.
5. If someone is being abusive or personal, or generally being a troll or a flame-baiter, please do not descend to their level. The best response to such posters is to ignore them and send us a message at Mail AT outlookindia DOT com with the subject header COMPLAINT
6. Please do not copy and paste copyrighted material. If you do think that an article elsewhere has relevance to the point you wish to make, please only quote what is considered fair-use and provide a link to the article under question.
7. There is no particular outlookindia.com line on any subject. The views expressed in our opinion section are those of the author concerned and not that of all of outlookindia.com or all its authors.
8. Please also note that you are solely responsible for the comments posted by you on the site. The comments could be deleted or edited entirely at our discretion if we find them objectionable. However, the mere fact of their existence on our site does not mean that we necessarily approve of their contents. In short, the onus of responsibility for the comments remains solely with the authors thereof. Outlookindia.com or any of its group publications, may, however, retains the right to publish any of these comments, with or without editing, in any medium whatsoever. It is therefore in your own interest to be careful before posting.
9.Outlookindia.com is not responsible in any manner whatsoever for how any search engine -- such as Google, Bing etc -- caches or displays these comments. Please note that you are solely responsible for posting these comments and it is a privilege being granted to our registered users which can be withdrawn in case of abuse. To reiterate:
a. Comments once posted can only be deleted at the discretion of outlookindia.com
b. The comments reflect the views of the authors and not of outlookindia.com
c. outlookindia.com is not responsible in any manner whatsoever for the way search engines cache or display these comments
d. Please therefore take due caution before you post any comments as your words could potentially be used against you
10. We have an online thread for our comments policy:
You are welcome to post your suggestions here or in case you have a specific issue, to directly email us at Mail AT outlookindia DOT com with the subject header COMPLAINT