In 1965, my mother, an Indian then living in New York, boarded an “air-conditioned coach”—that is, a Greyhound bus. Alone, 23, and wearing a sari, she traveled for three days across a strange and sprawling country to see the Grand Canyon. Describing this journey later, she betrayed no sense that it had been a punishing trip. After all, wasn’t the bus air-conditioned?
Indians of a certain generation are uncomplaining travelers, owners of things like suitcase locks and luggage that can never be mistaken for anyone else’s on a carousel. They are thrifty bookers of multi-continent odysseys that take advantage of every loophole in air-travel pricing. I know; I used to be one of them. Even as a 6-year-old, I was put on a plane in New York and expected to make contact in Bombay (after a layover in Zurich) with a grandfather I turned out not to recognize out of his Army uniform, so that I refused at first to surrender myself to him. I still fly home to India each year, and the annual passage is no longer an ordeal, thanks to the daily direct flights that United Airlines (and Air India) now offer between Delhi and New York.
In the United departure lounge at Newark, the passengers divide themselves into their air-travel castes. The hard-core Indian families who return home every year herd suitcases the size of Austin Minis. They appear relaxed, confident, looking forward to family reunions in Delhi and points beyond. Once on board, they are cunning cabin strategizers, casing the empty seats at the beginning of the flight to see where one might stretch out for a few hours of shuteye later, then leaving a cardigan as a place-saver before takeoff. They are the ones most likely to monopolize the washrooms onboard by performing lengthy ablutions 30 minutes before landing. In a Darwinian sense, they dominate the skies.
Meanwhile, among the first-timer American retirees booked in coach, mild panic is setting in amid their last gulps of stateside water. A pashmina-draped boutique buyer on her 27th trip to Jaipur checks into biz class, as do I, along with an array of sleek men with blazers full of Mont Blanc pens and business cards. They are blasé, seasoned fliers, unfazed by three-day turnarounds on flights that take 14 hours eastbound and 15 and a half westbound. On a flight last year I met a young businesswoman who was heading to Delhi for one day and one night, and planning to return to New York within 48 hours. A relative had died, and she was going to pay her respects. Earlier this month, I, too, went for only four nights, my aim being to surprise my mother on her 70th birthday, spend a day or two with her, and then fly back. Direct flights to Delhi are a godsend. The contrast between them and the old-style New York–Delhi flights is profound enough to constitute a cultural watershed.
Back in the day, a passenger was physically and emotionally destroyed by the flight between America and India—or, in some cases, no passenger at all, since the very thought of the multistop journey was a deal-breaker. The combined impact of the time change, the duration of the trip, and the stopover for refueling always laid waste to the diurnal rhythm we take for granted—the sense of one day coming to a close and another following. A full day of your life was sucked into a black hole, never to be retrieved.
Now, without setting foot in London or Amman—without even becoming conscious of geography—one can board in Newark, fall asleep, and miraculously awaken on an Indian tarmac. Given the unbroken sleep this nonstop route enables, flying in business class on United is actually not inferior to being at home or in a boutique hotel. The flight attendants are eager to pamper; every form of gustatory pleasure and entertainment is within reach, and sleep under the little down comforter comes embarrassingly easily.
It’s just you and your little patch of in-flight real estate until you are decanted into the Delhi immigration hall, where you, jaunty and rested of step, are scrutinized by somber men with gray moustaches and spectacles. The time-compressing magic of uninterrupted sleep is miraculous. Even those who cannot afford a business-class flatbed can still hope for a tolerable travel experience in “pharmaceutical class”—half an Ambien and a 12-hour upright snooze in coach. In biz class, naturally, the Ambien gets washed down with champagne.