THE KILLOUGH CHRONICLES | THE INDIA FILES
by James Killough
My Australian maternal grandmother had a few annoying habits. The most glaring was that she snorted like a sow chasing Thanksgiving leftovers when she laughed too hard. It drove my father crazy. It was nervous laughter, and the pig snorting was exacerbated as she tried to stop herself mid-chortle when my father glared at her. She was terrified of dad, which made her more nervous, which made her chortle-snort at everything he said even when it wasn’t funny. A typical dinner scene at our house ended up seeming like Lars von Triers’ take on Everybody Loves Raymond as scripted by Jonathan Franzen.
The most annoying thing for me about Grandma’s visits was the breakdown of her flight, even though now that I think about it, it’s from her and my mother that I get my daunting, entrapping sense of detail. It’s a long way from Australia to anywhere these days, they still haven’t mastered that distance thing, but back in the 70s and 80s that distance thing was even more acute, which meant we had to listen to hours of a blow-by-blow description of everything that happened during the flight, including what she ate, and how inevitably the food on Qantas was so much better than BOAC/British Airways, “those awful poms just cook the most atrocious food, soggy vegetables, tasteless meat…” etc.
In honor of Grandma Iris, I am going to break down my flight to India yesterday.
The trip to India is significant because I haven’t been back here in ten years. This is not just the return of someone who happens to like the country quite a bit and wishes he had returned sooner, but just couldn’t find the time. As the host of the 1993 Miss India Pageant and other misdemeanors committed on this undeserving country, this is the return of the non-native native; I am something of an honorary Indian. I have been a circumstantial exile from what was my adopted country.
The reason I haven’t been back is simple: as someone raised as the weary nomadic child of the empire, as an adult I tend to travel only for work, or for dire emergencies like family weddings. I don’t travel for pleasure because I see no pleasure in it. I don’t work often enough to warrant a vacation, and in any case there is no need to take a vacation from what I do and recharge because I love what I do and it keeps me charged enough as it is. Where others see the excitement of discovering new terrains and cultures, I see an uncomfortable plane seat, jetlag and an unfamiliar bed.
No opportunity has arisen in close to a decade to return to India. And now one has, a commission for a series of films for an Indian company.
Advances in aviation mean there are now non-stop flights from New York to Delhi, but yesterday I was flying from Los Angeles, and the advances haven’t quite made it to a non-stop flight from there. If Bollywood and Hollywood ever join forces in a significant way, which I could see happening if India were to go into production studios and post-production in a significant way that would attract US production spend, then a direct flight might arise. For now, even in the age of the super-long-haul plane, we are stuck with a traditional layover, either in Europe or Dubai.
Looking at a globe, it seems that Delhi is at exactly the opposite side of the world from LA, and it certainly used to feel like that way when I was doing that run every couple of months back at the dawn of this century. I don’t sleep well on planes, so what I would do back then is go on a bender for three or four days prior to departure, munch a fistful of Xanax and then pass out on the plane and sleep it off.
Once, I miscalculated days and finished off the drugs barely an hour before boarding, and was so jacked I was almost glued to the top of the fuselage, doing my very best gay Hunter S. Thompson as Spider-man, talking to myself and everyone around me incessantly, with impunity. I was Oberon, King of the Fairies; the bubbles circling my head felt visible and iridescent. To my great good fortune, on the LA-to-London segment of the flight I found myself sitting next to two prim English women in their sixties who were coming back from a Virgin Holiday to California, whom I would later understand were “Daily Telegraph readers,” from Surrey, the equivalent of Republicans from Westchester County. Best of all, they had never met a gay man before in their lives. It’s an experience they will never forget; I believe I talked non-stop about all things ghey for the entire eleven-hour flight. If they had never met a ghey before, by the time they disembarked, they knew the difference between a top, a vers/top, a versatile, a vers/bottom and a total bottom, and how to rig a sling properly so the ceiling doesn’t come down.
I seem to remember they sold kitchens.
I don’t know how we managed in those days on the super long-hauls when I was first going out to India in the late 80s with just a couple of films for the whole cabin instead of the one thousand five hundred plus on the Emirates flight from Los Angeles to New Delhi I just took. It certainly made all the difference. I have been a fan of Virgin Atlantic since it first started, but Emirates is in another league. When I first heard the flight was going to be close to sixteen hours from LA to Dubai, I immediately texted half a dozen friends to elicit sympathy: “16 hrs non-stop to Dubai in economy. Groan.” Dame Bea was clever enough not to fall for my whining and asked what airline. When I replied Emirates, she said, “That’s like business class.”
Indeed it was. Business class with a tiny seat. Even so, midway through the flight over the North Pole I had to admit that I had nothing to complain about, that it was merely a very long flight, that in fact this was shaving off ten hours from the old LA-to-Delhi run, that in fact I was having a pretty good time. Which is a pity because I love to complain, I feel it gives me soul.
The reason Emirates itself is notable is because of Dubai, home of the airline, where I hadn’t been for about fifteen years. Basically, Dubai is a country built entirely around a single airline. I’m not sure what else it does, maybe oil refinery or something, but basically it’s a duty free port attached to the hub of what must be the world’s fastest growing fleet.
Tax-free perfume, watches, and other luxury goods is how Dubai started on the road from being a pearl-fishing village to what it is today. Anyone flying back and forth of India in the 80s and 90s remembers the Dubai ad campaign, “Fly Buy Dubai.” It had the best duty-free shopping in the world, and that shopping experience has now transformed itself into the world’s tallest tower, the Burj Khalifa, with the world’s largest mall beneath it.
The last time I was there, back in the 90s, Dubai was the home of Indian mini-bin Ladens, charming characters like Dawood Ibrahim, who funds Bollywood films and terrorist strikes, like the 1993 bombings in Mumbai just before the fakatah Miss India Pageant. Dubai back then looked like a middle-eastern Miami Beach, with Arabs and Indians instead of Cubans and Ricans. Now it’s its own signature beast.
Most people in the west became conscious of Dubai when it just sort of sprang up one day as an Arabian Vegas. Or maybe they really started paying attention when it defaulted on spectacularly huge loans a couple of years ago, or when the Burj Khalifa was completed. But for those of us who have actually used it as a hub over the years, the transformation is a stunning, jaw-dropping achievement. I’d read about it during the years of my absence from India, and sort of flipped the page quickly because all the excess makes me bilious; however, taking in the scale, the totality of the vision and its execution is something else when you’re actually walking through it. And all I saw this trip was the city from the air and the new airport, which is still under construction. It’s like some mad sheikh saw Blade Runner and said, “Build me that.”
The good sheikhs of Araby accomplished this the old fashioned way, by reaching out across the Arabian Sea and scooping up hoards of poor Indian laborers to build and build and build. It was a fair exchange: work was plentiful and the wages far better than they could get at home.
Dubai is a modern Taj Mahal, a grand folly that was scorned during its time — Emperor Shah Jahan wasn’t allowed to build a mirror version in black by his own son because enough was enough with the excess, already — but which remains an icon and a destination because of itself. Similarly, Agra, the city that houses the Taj, is non-descript and exists only for the buildings and the tourist trade.
I realize I have managed to write an entire post about an airport, which is going to be a relief for Baker, who was slipping into a panic state about the amount of cock that has been floating around this blog the past week. His cold sweats had me wiping my spectacles, reaching for my notepad and murmuring, “Und zo. How long haf you had zis fear of massive fourteen-inch schlongs? Hmmm? Does your sphincter pucker in panic?” No doubt he has taken a look at our site stats and noticed that every inch of those cocks corresponds to a major upturn in page views.
Somehow I doubt that the height of the Burj Khalifa will get us proportionate results.