Thursday, February 04, 2016

The glamorous lives of ’80s air hostesses in India

Some people called them “glorified ayahs,” while they were patronisingly referred to in Hindi as hawayi sundaris. Yet, in the ’70s and ’80s, Indian air hostesses were also envied as glamorous, elite women who looked like film stars, jet-setted across the world, and enjoyed exotic holidays that few others could afford.
Being an air hostess in the ’80s was, in many ways, vastly different from being a flight attendant today. It was an era of fewer airlines, more luxury, and greater glamour. Despite the alarming number of aircraft attacks and hijackings taking place through the ’70s and ’80s, it was an age far less obsessed with security than the post-9/11 world.
“When I started out, we were trained to focus on service, not safety and security,” said Elfin Fernand, a Mumbai resident who joined Air India as an air hostess in 1974 at the age of 21, and retired in 2009. “We had to know our wines and cheese and how to look after the passenger’s comfort. Today’s flight attendants have to be constantly alert, so even while talking to a passenger their eyes dart all over the place.”
Fernand’s career took off at a time when the perception of air hostesses had rapidly begun to change in India. Earlier, the women almost always came from Anglo-Indian, Catholic, or Parsi families. In the rest of Indian society, flying, serving passengers, and working with men was not looked upon as a respectable profession for a young woman.
“Many of the Hindu girls who came for air hostess interviews in the ’60s and early ’70s either had to fight with their parents or lie to them,” said Mahrukh Chikliwala, a veteran Air India flight attendant who flew from 1969 to 2009, and retired as a trainer for younger staff. “But many people also envied our work, because it didn’t need a lot of educational qualifications but paid very well.”
By the time women like Bhanot—who came from an educated Punjabi family in Mumbai—joined the field, young girls across India were dreaming of a life as an air hostess. One of them was Suneeta Sodhi-Kanga, who wanted to be an air hostess since she was six and was actively encouraged by her family.
 In 1989, after Kanga won the Miss World Airline pageant held in Paris, she became the face of Air India at various cultural and publicity events.
The attention that air hostesses received for their grooming and beauty, however, came with a heavy dose of gender discrimination. Male flight attendants were hardly ever spoken about, but air hostesses were objects of fascination, and their looks a subject of much discussion.
04/02/16 Aarefa Johari/
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