October 16th, 2007


A flying Taj Mahal

I'm in London, about to start two days of brainstorming on the subject of The Really Modern Library at the London School of Economics, in an event organized by the Institute for the Future of the Book (sponsored by the Mellon Foundation). Thinking about what libraries can and might become alongside me will be, amongst others, Cory Doctorow and Eames Demetrios, the grandson of Charles and Ray Eames. More coverage as the sessions unfold.

Today, though, I just wanted to talk about the flight over from New York. I was originally going to fly back to Berlin from New York, but the if:book people bought me a new ticket back to Europe, with Air India. I've flown the airline before, between Japan and Thailand (when I annoyed the hostess by asking for British tea -- "It's Indian tea," she corrected, quite correctly), but I must admit I was a bit worried by the combination of the ridiculous cheapness of the ticket (just $157 before tax, one way, which is £76) and the route, basically the same one an Air India 747 took in 1985 when it was bombed out of the skies over the Irish Sea.

My trepidations were completely misplaced. Air India is a great way to fly (if fly you must -- save the Earth, etc). Terminal 4 at JFK is vastly superior to the awful Delta terminal I've been spending so much time in recently. The people queuing at check in were wearing beautiful Indian clothes -- Indians must be the best-dressed people on the entire planet, with fantastic colours and patterns and forms in their clothes, and a refreshing absence of the jeans, mesh hats and pseudo-sportswear you see at Western airline check-in lines.

The plane was a brand new Boeing 777 painted in the new Air India livery, which (I'm glad to say) retains the Taj Mahal window decorations I noted in my Cosmopolitanism of the Poor entry, but adds a new tail design, a big orange and red chakra motif taken from the Sun Temple at Konark. The hostesses wear saris with a slice of bare belly showing, and are distractingly gorgeous. The music that plays before take-off is better than the usual airline music (it seemed to be a mixture of Indian and Western songs played on sitar) and the in-flight movies are Bollywood, not Hollywood. Oh, and the lamb curry is -- for airline food -- pretty good, with a pot of yoghurt and some wonderfully strange, stringy-sweet dessert.

India's economic growth is second only to China's right now, and when you're in the middle of a neo-orientalist transport on an aesthetically pleasing, smooth nocturnal Air India flight it's fascinating to imagine the world skewing more and more to the values encountered on this flying Taj Mahal -- the way women are, the way food is, the way clothes are, the way movies and music are.

A lot of my writing and thinking revolves around the idea that the West is, in many ways, morally and aesthetically threadbare at the moment, and that Asia's rise can only be a good thing for the world. We may be handing over leadership, later this century, to two cultures which are much older and wiser than our own. I sometimes have the feeling that India could be as important to me as Japan has been. I need to go there one day. In the meantime, jet-lagged but refreshed, I made a bee line for the British Museum (not far from my hotel) and soaked up some of the shakti, replacing the night's lost hours with Yoganidra, Maya's divine sleep.