Unless you are big on the British royal family, you will not know that Prince William has recently broken up with his long-standing girlfriend, Kate Middleton—just as the tabloids were speculating that a wedding was imminent.
Nobody—on the outside, at least—knows why they broke up, but newspapers report that though Middleton’s parents are millionaires, friends of the royal family were openly sneery about her middle-class origins. Apparently, her mother was once an air hostess and this made Kate socially suspect in the eyes of William’s aristocratic pals. Each time they wanted to make fun of her, they would chant “doors to manual”, echoing the announcement made in an aircraft cabin just after landing.
The British are a funny, class- obsessed people, but this example of their snobbery set me thinking: How do we, in India, regard air hostesses? Are we snobbish about them? Or do they still represent the sort of glamour they once did?
In the 1960s, when Air India was the equivalent of today’s Singapore Airlines in image terms, its air hostesses were universally envied. They were regarded as well travelled (at a time when most Indians never dreamt of going abroad), sophisticated and impossibly glamorous.
If a consumer products company needed a model for an ad campaign, it would ask Air India if it could borrow one of its air hostesses. Many ads from that era carried the legend “model– courtesy Air-India”. Young girls vied to copy the way in which air hostesses tied their saris (with many safety pins, as I remember). And there was a certain cachet attached to going out with an Air India hostess.
Many of the air hostesses of the 1960s went on to marry rich men or to become famous in their own right. And though, in the 1980s, the phrase ‘trolley to lolly’ was frequently used to describe society ladies whose career had begun with the life-jacket demonstration, I never actually met an air hostess from that generation who was at all embarrassed about her time in the skies.
Maureen Wadia still loves to tell stories of her Air India days and says she met her husband, the textile tycoon Nusli, when Air India loaned her to Bombay Dyeing for an ad campaign. Parmeshwar Godrej has never hidden the fact that she flew briefly. The singer, Asha Puthli, has referred to her air-hostess days as “sophisticated hitchhiking”. And Nina Pillai, who flew in the 1970s, is proud of her time as an air hostess. So, I think that the caricature about air hostesses who find fame or marry into money and then rewrite their CVs to excise all mention of their past is probably inaccurate.
But, sometime in the late 1970s, we began to regard hostesses differently. In 1975, Zafar Hai made an excellent promotional film for Air India called To Serve is to Love, which predated the ‘Singapore girl’ campaign by focusing on air hostesses. Sadly, the airline never had the guts to release it. (This was around the time that the appalling Morarji Desai and his Janata government sent the legendary Bobby Kooka home and sacked J.R.D. Tata as chairman of Air India.)
Perhaps it was the change in the profile of air-travellers. After the Gulf boom, you were more likely to run into labourers than millionaires on Air India flights, but the whole business of flying began to seem less glamorous. And air hostesses went from being regarded as style icons to being treated as high-flying waitresses.
It made a difference, also, that India advanced in other areas. Somebody like Zeenat Aman, who would once have been regarded as ideal air-hostess material, now found that new opportunities had opened up. She went from beauty queen to model to movie star. Other girls, who would have applied to Air India, now went into modelling instead.
By the 1980s, modelling was such a big business in its own right that nobody bothered to borrow Air India’s girls. I knew that an era had died when Air India itself started using professional models and dressing them up as air hostesses, rather than promoting its own girls. Cut-outs of Nandini Sen were put up at every office and Neesha Singh pretended to be an air hostess for an in-flight film.
These days, there’s a new boom in the air-hostess business. As private airlines continue looking for staff, innumerable air hostess training schools have opened up and thousands of young girls dream of making in-flight announcements.
There’s a difference though. In the old days, air hostesses tended to be drawn from a smaller social and ethnic pool (“Parsis, RCs and aalsis”, they used to say of Air India’s girls). Now, they are symbols of the galloping economic growth that has created a new Indian middle class. Many come from small towns, have grown up in non-English speaking homes and are in it for the money, not for the glamour or the joy of travel.
In that sense, the new generation of cabin crew (both the men and the women) are not unlike the young people who go to work at call centres. In both cases, they accept high pressure jobs (and don’t kid yourself, it is hard work being an air hostess) with terrible hours and no real long-term prospects. But they recognize that the money is good and are confident that, given the rate at which India is growing, there will be new kinds of jobs available to them when they are ready to stop flying.
So, do we suffer from doors-to- manual syndrome? Are we snobbish about air hostesses? Well, yes and no. I think India is changing too quickly for any kind of snobbery to endure in the long term. Social mobility is so rapid that today’s travelling salesmen are tomorrow’s billionaires.
On the other hand, I can’t really see any of today’s hostesses marrying into the Wadias and Godrejs. Let’s put it this way: It isn’t that we look down on them. It’s more that we’ve stopped looking up to them.
Write to Vir at firstname.lastname@example.org