Butter Chicken in Bratislava

Back in the day when your humble servant was but a wee lad, we lived in France with one extended family to visit in the United States and another in India. That made for a lot of intercontinental travel, and since we didn’t have much money, we tended to go for long stays and travel by the cheapest means possible. The result is that I achieved a lot of early experience flying on disreputable airlines. In 1973, my dad took me for my first visit back to India; Iraqi Airways was our carrier. Twelve years later, I traveled solo on Syrian Airlines. There were some sinister looking Syrian security personnel watching us as we boarded in Paris and aboard the plane. But that probably helped keep us safe. At the layover in Damascus airport I remember big empty halls and lots of pictures of Hafez al-Assad.

But the single worst passenger experience was circa 1978, on Aeroflot. Flying from Paris to Moscow was no big deal; a relatively modern aircraft, on time, quick. There was enough business, cultural and diplomatic activity between the Soviet Union and Western Europe to warrant decent service. The Moscow-Delhi leg was another story. Almost everyone on the plane was someone trying to get to India cheap — mainly backpackers and families like us — and our comfort and care were not major corporate priorities. That Ilyushin was one loud-ass aircraft and falling apart inside and out. The food was unspeakable, but the flight was long, and people ate. Mass nausea ensued, and long lines began to form in the aisles toward the rear of the plane. As I recall, we were sitting back there and the aromas were quickly getting nasty.

Amid this scene, the air hostesses, who had until then treated us with glacial Slavic/Soviet neglect, suddenly ran down the aisles toward the back, agitation on their faces, and yelled to the people in line:

“You sit! You sit! Pilot say, airplane TEEPING!”

Ah, travel tales. Well, this joyous experience is what comes to my mind as I learn from the BBC, through a kind tipster on the News tab, that

An Indian-born businessman has purchased a private central European airline for an undisclosed amount.

Harjinder Singh Sidhu, who lives in UK and is a British passport holder, bought Air Slovakia, a small privately owned airline based in the capital, Bratislava last week, it has emerged.

His son, Riqbal ‘Rocky’ Singh, told the BBC News website that his father wants to transform the 60-employee Air Slovakia into a “Punjabi experience”.

airslovak.jpg

Air Slovakia, which boasts three aircraft and 60 employees, has to have the weirdest route map in the world. According to the airline website, itself an interesting specimen of the genre, it operates flights between Bratislava, the Slovakian capital, and Birmingham, Milan, Tel Aviv, Cyprus, and… Amritsar. The BBC article suggests that there are plans to serve various Western European airports, including Stansted. But make no mistake, Air Slovakia is now a Punjabi airline.

“The bulk of our passengers are from Punjab and Punjabis from Europe. So we want to brand Air Slovakia as an airline with Punjabi ambience and flavour. Our stewards, airhostesses will be from Punjab as also the in-flight food,” Mr Singh, who is a director at the airline, said.

But what does Mr Singh say about an airline catering to passengers from Punjab still being named Air Slovakia?

“The airline will have a second name of sorts when it comes to India. All tickets to and from India will be sold under a Punjabi name which will also be branded on the planes,” Mr Singh said.

In other words, if you’re in India and looking for that cheap fare to the UK, beware. Some snazzy sounding new airline offering unbeatable prices out of Amritsar might turn out to be this:

Airline passenger websites do not report a very happy experience of travelling on Air Slovakia so far.

“My advice would be not to travel on Air Slovakia, very poor service, very cramped, not enough leg room, staff rude, food poor.. Air Slovakia leave you stranded and offer you no help,” complains a passenger on one website.

I’d also recommend checking the aircraft registration papers and security records. No knock on the Slovakians, but several Eastern European countries have become known as easy places to get aircraft papers with minimal or no inspection.

But Mr. Singh promises that the old days are gone for good. He says service under the new all-Punjabi concept has already improved. (Needless to say, if any Mutineers have experienced this airline, we’d love to hear from you.) And the website is even doing its own job promoting India as a destination:

India will sideswipe you with its size, clamour and diversity – but if you enjoy delving into convoluted cosmologies and thrive on sensual overload, then it is one of the most intricate and rewarding dramas unfolding on earth, and you’ll quickly develop an abiding passion for it.

Nothing in the country is ever quite predictable; the only thing to expect is the unexpected, which comes in many forms and will always want to sit next to you. India is a litmus test for many travellers – some are only too happy to leave, while others stay for a lifetime.

Well, when I fly, I don’t like my litmus test to come and sit next to me — been there, done that, and I know it’s nasty. But still, let’s hand it to Mr. Singh for his bold, counter-intuitive business play. The brother seems optimistic about his chances of making a buck:

What is also unclear is how Air Slovakia was faring financially when the Singhs took it over.

“Let us say it is about to enter puberty. It needs some tender love and care,” says Mr Singh with a flourish.

117 thoughts on “Butter Chicken in Bratislava

  1. Why do you think the stress level would be lower?

    i think there would be less fear of other passengers in regards to motives and less misunderstandings

  2. Siddhartha, two questions that occured to me reading your write-up:

    1)Would you say that your Indian extended family was more tolerant/welcoming of your ‘long stays’ than your American family was?

    2)Did you study in English-language schools in France, or French-language (just curious)? Did you usually speak in French with your sister?

  3. How about Rocky-Shocky di vaddi gaddi as a name?

    thats pretty good. the jingle could be like Rocky da motor thay, like the song

  4. we’ll start in nyc–rio–buenos aires–santiago–easter island–baltra (galapagos)–ofu island–beijing–cambodia—nepal–seychelles–istambul–cairo–marrakesh–home.

    Can I come?

  5. Siddhatha

    Again, an unrelated question, but I’ve kinda been considering job opportunities in France after I graduate, and am concerned about the lifestyle. I’ve visited and traveled around France, and had a lot of fun, but am wondering if living there is worth it if you are

    1) obviously Brown/non-white 2) don’t speak French or any Romance language.

    Non-French people I know who’ve lived and loved France usually are white and/or speak French, so I’m having a hard time getting a good idea.

    We can talk offline about this if necessary, but looks like a few people might be interested. Maybe a blog post about your experiences/opinions?

  6. Oh, and I forgot the third criterion

    3) Male. Women (esp ‘exotic’ brown ones) always seem to have a good time in France – they love the attention from French dudes, it seems :)

  7. Technophobic, I spent an entire year in France two years ago. It’s an amazing place to visit as a tourist but working and living there are not that easy. The French bureacracy can put India’s buracracy to shame. It takes a month to get broadband and cable. A month to open a bank account. Work permits are tough due to the huge unemployment rate-the process is horrible and most jobs won’t even consider foreigners who can’t speak fluent French. In about a year my French was at a level where I could do a powerpoint presentation fluently-however this was not enough for the jobs that were available.

  8. I’ve been thinking about your issues with language Amitabh, and I think you should consider the following;

    of using the opportunity of being a pardesi (I was going to say being an udasi but I don’t think I know the totally correct usage of that word) to create something new. You seem to have a solid grasp on multiple desi languages and probably you understand the naunces of how to use a given word in a context. So why not bring into English those types of ideas? Along with preserving to the extent possible desi language. I think you might be happier, not that you aren’t happy now. But it seems like a struggle to take on the task you’re taking on.

    Thought this might be of use. BTW if you have a background on the word udasi I would love to hear it. I do enjoy your knowledge of the history of language

    Ps. I know I have a tendency to be preachy and self righteous and I am trying to change that.

  9. Amitabh, I think my brother won’t mind if I take a crack at answering your questions (#53).

    Regarding long stays, I’d say that in an Indian family where, for some members, coming over for tea means staying for 7 hours and at least two meals, yes, “long stays” were more the norm! Actually, to tell you the truth, I never felt any tension regarding length of stay. We’d sometimes spend one month of the summer in India, and one in the US. (And on the subject of memorable flights, I won’t ever forget my solo voyage, as a sixteen year old, from NYC to Calcutta via Paris, where I zipped into the city for a couple of hours to check on our plants and bring in the mail–all while suffering the early ill effects of a dreadful antimalarial medication, Lariam. I ended up spending three weeks sick as a dog at my grandmother’s house, convinced, adolescent that I was, that my death was imminent.) When in India, we’d usually remain in Calcutta, where the bulk of our family, and our grandmother, lived. The house was better suited to accommodating a visiting family for a while (more bedrooms, servants, etc.) than the homes of our US relatives. From my perspective as a kid, though, it seemed all our grandparents were always so glad to have us around that there were no issues. Perhaps our parents would disagree. I experienced something one year that my brother did not: the year he went to college, our parents and I moved to Bombay for the year. Believe me, as a 13 year old kid uprooted from her friends and school, I for sure thought that was way too long a stay!

    As for languages, that’s an interesting question, and I’d be curious to hear what others with siblings do. My brother and I grew up speaking English at home, despite living in France. Neither of our parents was a native French speaker. But now that we’re both in the US, we speak a funny mix of English, proper French, French slang, expressions from West Africa (another connection we share). Throw in a few Bengali words, some Yiddish, some literal translations into French of English expressions, and you end up with a unique melange that I doubt any other person on earth would understand in its entirety.

  10. PS: apologies for leading the thread further from the original topic. I just thought the questions were interesting.

  11. Lariam is a big mistake for most people. You’re better off with Doxycycline or some of the newer combination drugs.

  12. Lariam is a big mistake for most people. You’re better off with Doxycycline or some of the newer combination drugs.

    The nightmare that was Lariam is over! The good stuff now is Malarone. You have to take a pill daily, but there are no weird side-effects.

  13. siddhartha – great post!

    Airlines from Ex-USSR states are milking money on UK – Punjab route.

    Transaero Airlines – Moscow->Amritsar->Moscow Turkmenistan Airlines (via Tashkent) Uzbekistan Airlines (via Ashgabat) Aeroslovakia

    Even Ariana Afghan some times provides connection to Europe via Kabul

    Amritsar must be a “plane spotter’s paradise”!

  14. tamasha: sure.. actually i’ll be globe trekking next summer for 3 months.. my itinerary is something like the above with some other add in’s ;)

    larium SUCKS (agree with siddharth)… and cloroquine is useless… nowadays when i go to bharat i take my chances….

  15. Lariam is a big mistake for most people. You’re better off with Doxycycline or some of the newer combination drugs.
    The nightmare that was Lariam is over! The good stuff now is Malarone. You have to take a pill daily, but there are no weird side-effects.

    Interestingly enough, I never take anti-malarial drugs when I go to India. I suppose I should, because I have “sweet blood” (as my mother used to say when I refused the Odomos), but ever since my Lariam-induced hallucinations in Tanzania (lions and tigers and bears oh my!) I refuse.

  16. Tamasha – take doxyclicne or malarone. I swear by doxy, never had a problem. Abhi – Lariam halucinations can sometimes be less colorful and more troubling. A friend of mine started to wake up in the middle of the night shaking. She quit the larium and the shakes went away. [The she stupidly refused to take anything and got malaria for her troubles].

    When I lived in a malarial country for an extended period of time, my doctor actually stepped me down to a lighter anti-malarial, on the grounds that I had built up some immunity …

  17. Anjali:

    PS: apologies for leading the thread further from the original topic. I just thought the questions were interesting.

    I should probably apologize too because I also find this tangent pretty fascinating. In Mixed Messages Part II, this part really impressed me (and even made me a little envious):

    Siddhartha: [...] People always comment to me on how quickly I seem to be at home in a new setting. and it’s true, I am. But the other side of it is that I’m never 100% at home in any setting. I sort of gave up a long time ago on “belonging” — although to be honest I don’t think I ever really sought to “belong” in the first place. DesiDancer: Interesting. I’ve often received the same compliment about being able to come into any situation, with any group of people, and make everyone (including myself) feel comfortable. Yet I’ve also been told I’m somewhat aloof, in that I don’t give in 100% to trying to belong. I think I just realize that there are plenty of places I can fit into, but never completely, so there’s a degree of fluidity that allows me to move easily between cities, groups of people, situations and feel at ease. But in the end, the only place I’m entirely 100% guard-down comfortable is in my own house. Siddhartha: Wow, very similar!

    Of course, they were talking about mixed race (and I don’t know if you even agree with them) but after reading your comment I wonder how much the geographical displacement/uprooting from both your parents’ homelands contributed to your ability to adapt to different environments. I imagine it would have been very different if you had grown up only in India with your dad’s family or only in the US with your mom’s family. It’s as if growing up in a place that was neither India nor the US was a sort of physical manifestation of that sense of “not belonging” that Siddhartha referred to. Which would you say had a bigger impact on your sense of identity, mixed race/ethnicity or mixed geopolitics/regional cultures?

  18. Hmmm, ok, I guess the words “displacement” and “uprooting” have pretty negative connotations, and that’s not fair for me to say. Just pretend I said distance instead.

  19. I gave up on the anti-malaria pills and just carried a bug repellant spray from REI. It wotked fine. The nephews and nieces loved it over their usual Odomos.

  20. we can hand out dandia sticks…and have the stewardesses do garba as entertainment… chai, pani, nasta…the works…

    Funnny. And you can have a little kid in half pant making the incessant “Chai, Chai” calls.

  21. little kid in half pant making the incessant “Chai, Chai” calls

    um.. no, it’s ‘garam garam chai’..blaring in your ear… :) -the best part of riding in the trains of india.. is the random food items that are sold in the train and at the different stations..nothing like it!

  22. A thread on airline experience and only experience of Air India’s racism reported? Ha, so this has been going on since the 70′s, Manju? I don’t care so much about their poor service as about the relatively bad treatment that Indians get. A few years ago my (Indian) girlfriend and I were flying together and the flight attendant made it a point to address every foreigner as “Sir”/”Madam” but not to do so for Indians. This happened every time she was serving food/drinks. Now, I don’t want anyone to ‘sir’ me, but what the hell is that behavior supposed to mean?

  23. I thought the service on Jet Airways was fantastic. It sucked that every flight was at 6 or 7 am, but we got where we needed to go. Sure we had to walk out to the plane from the terminal, but the flights took off on time. All the stewardesses were courteous and could actually fit down the center of the aisle without bumping your head with their hips, unlike the overweight, grumpy 40 year-old American stewardesses.

  24. Ha, so this has been going on since the 70′s, Manju?

    According to my dad, it was much worse in the 60′s and 70′s. He boycotted IA for about 15yrs. He thinks things are much better now so maybe time decolonizes the mind.

  25. 76,

    Don’t you recv the same treatment in Indian restaurants ? At least, that is the case for the lone Indian restaurant in town. I can’t read their motives, but it is like they take you for granted.

  26. A thread on airline experience and only experience of Air India’s racism reported? Ha, so this has been going on since the 70′s, Manju? I don’t care so much about their poor service as about the relatively bad treatment that Indians get. A few years ago my (Indian) girlfriend and I were flying together and the flight attendant made it a point to address every foreigner as “Sir”/”Madam” but not to do so for Indians. This happened every time she was serving food/drinks. Now, I don’t want anyone to ‘sir’ me, but what the hell is that behavior supposed to mean?
    Don’t you recv the same treatment in Indian restaurants ? At least, that is the case for the lone Indian restaurant in town. I can’t read their motives, but it is like they take you for granted.

    Hmmm… now this is very interesting. I’m assuming by “lone Indian restaurant in town” you’re not in India, whereas Kurma was talking about Air India. While an Air India flight might be boarding in New York or London or wherever, once you’re on the plane you might as well be in India.

    My point is that I, on the contrary, feel like I get way more attention and service than I need in Indian restaurants (as a rule I do not fly Air India, so I can’t speak to that), both here (NYC) and there (usually Mumbai). It might just be that I’m a woman, but I’m not sure I believe that. Maybe there’s something firangi about me that I don’t know about, so there’s the assumption that I need help? Maybe they all want to be my best friend because I’m Indian? In either case, I’m never ignored, so it’s interesting to hear these opposite experiences.

  27. Re: The differing treatment of Indians and ‘phorens’ on IA. I found the opposite sort of treatment on Jet Airways, all the phorens were pulled aside for a baggage search and all the Indians just waved through. It was hilarious to see them treated that way for once. Schadenfreude.

    In India, the treatment meted out to myself versus white bfs has been uneven. On the one hand, there are those who treat foreigners with suspicion and coldness; as soon as they saw me, their manner became warmer and more ingratiating. Then there are those who think all Indians are poor like themselves and not worth fussing over. One female cybercafe owner treated me with total disdain, kept fawning over my bf and another american guy we were hanging out with, not realizing that I was the one who’d brought the business to her. My cousin and I went out for dinner with my bf and the waiter kept serving him first until he protested (maybe this is a gender thing). Then there was the girl in a crowd who banged into me, then into my bf, then turned around and sweetly apologized – to him.

    The family is yet another situation – while my bfs have been treated like gold, I’ve been treated, well, like just another member of the family. I once brought this up to a male cousin, who smoothly said ‘we think about him just when he is here, but you we think about all the time’. Haha.

  28. One of the best things about service in Jet Airways as opposed to Delta or any other US airline is that they feel free to not hire overweight women over the age of 30. The food, the beautiful stewardesses, the decor was much better in Jet than any US carrier I have been in (although Jetblue comes close). And they call us a “third world country” hah !

  29. Anand – Well, one of the reasons they might call ‘you’ a ‘third world country’ is because ‘you’ have such backward, patriarchal social ideas. Wake up to the fact that females don’t solely exist for your gratification. Nothing screams LOSER so loudly as the kind of statements you make about blacks and women.

  30. ‘we think about him just when he is here, but you we think about all the time’

    DQ – HILARIOUS.

    I’ve never brought a boyfriend to India. The thought makes me hyperventilate, although mostly because of my uber-critical family: What? Photographer? No man, what’s your real job? Radiologist on the side?

  31. anand – ignore DQ, et al., this site is a bit hyper-PC. the facts you said are true, and I found your post amusing. gracias.

  32. We Indians have served other races for centuries but never in a purely transactional sort of way. Perhaps that’s why when we are are put in service roles – waiters, flight attendants, and so on – our personal baggage always interferes with the customer interface. We need to learn the American “Have a nice day” style of service with a smile. It is happening, though. The big Indian companies are using the same customer service training programs that we have in the west, and you are starting to see that generic happy talk without any attitude in the upper crust banks, hotels and corporations in India.

  33. anand:

    u should travel on avensa b/f you die. words can’t explain. and the uniforms are miniskirts. Venezuelans value physical beauty more than any other culture…to the point that miss world/universe pagents are like the super bowl over there and they have the hightest % of breast implants in the world.

  34. Anjali, thank you for answering my questions. Very interesting things you said.

    Sahej, thank for your comments too. I don’t think I have time or energy (or probably ability) for creative writing in English mixed with desi languages; besides the only ones I know are Hindi/Urdu and Punjabi, all at fairly basic levels. Udasi to my knowledge is a sect of some sort. As for my ‘struggle’ as you put it, trust me, although it bothers me at times, it’s not part of my day to day life. I see activists of dying languages trying so hard to revive them (the Celtic languages especially) and I know that one day people will be trying to revive a lot of dying desi languages. Now is the time when the loss can be stopped…but people are going to have to decide what’s important to them…at least I know in my lifetime these languages will still be around – although I think if you check back in 30 years you will find a major deterioration compared to today. But raising awareness never hurts, and that’s what I try to do.

  35. Amitabh, you wouldn’t have said it. You’re a gentleman.

    It’s one thing to say ‘yeah and the Jet Airways girls are smokin’ (which is fine), and another to jeer at overweight women/women over thirty as though they have no value. Most men don’t think THAT way, or else they’d be – well, just look at most of the women in the world (to whom most of the men in the world are married…) There’s all the difference in the world if I say: ‘Jet Airways pilots are really fit and good in bed’ and saying ‘I wouldn’t ever screw an Air India pilot older than thirty, they’re all fat, plus their penises are small’. The first statement is appreciative – the second is dehumanizing.

  36. Amitabh,

    Allright. Although my comment probably seems inane, I was just thinking maybe you’re titling at a windmill like Don Quixote and I just wanted to give you another perspective. I’m glad you’re not “struggling”. Cheers man

  37. Tamasha – LOL. Know exactly where you’re coming from. My family was so stunned at my traveling ‘in sin’ that they didn’t make too many enquiries regarding the future of the first guy who ventured to accompany me to India. By the time I showed up with my recent ex, I’d been put on some ‘completely beyond the pale’ list – kind of like multiplying infinity times any number and you still get infinity? Now, no matter what I do, I’m completely beyond the pale.

  38. Potential…for…humor…hurting…my head…brain…might…explode…

    Gah!

    Ok, so I once flew a red-eye from Moscow to Leningrad on Aeroflot, leaving at midnight. When they sealed the doors and pressurized the cabin, two things happened: all the flies buzzing around the cabin suddenly fell over, and the 2-year-old belonging to the babushka sitting next to me with a plastic basket filled with raw tubers (honest. I can’t make this stuff up) started screaming her cute little Russian head off. I tried asking babushka if maybe the baby’s ears hurt? Ears? And then I’d point to my ears. And she would smile a largely-toothless smile, and offer me a raw dirt-crusted tuber from her basket.

    The child screamed for the entirety of that 7-hour flight. At 8am, after disembarking from the plane, I was so exhausted I fell asleep in the airport on top of my roller suitcase. (er, relevance to the posting? Yeah, not so much, except you mentioned Aeroflot, which got me thinking).

  39. Pretty sure you were talking to me Yeti on that other comment where you mistook Salil’s comment. Point heard. could have said it in a nicer way but you do have a point.

  40. Wake up to the fact that females don’t solely exist for your gratification.

    Tcch Tcch. One wrong word and you get zapped by the Taliban-like “PC police” on this board. The dude was merely articulating what most men think about every 30 seconds.

  41. What is UP with you guys? anand’s #83 was not alright at all. What’s the logic here? Can’t you see the difference between “X woman is hot” and “I wouldn’t like to do business with Y because she’s not hot enough”. So, we all think about sex every thirty seconds and that means we can’t respect people for the work they do? WTF?

    Somebody just has to say something other than “chill yaar” and the “don’t be PC” police swings into action.