Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Coffee, Tea or Me?

You need to be of a certain age to know this phrase – and also to have to know that this is the title of an absolutely wonderful book (for adults and mature audiences).

It also belongs to a different era and unlikely to be popular or even relate-able – seriously in terms of the advances and fast pace of change we are witnessing, it truly is a snapshot of the glorious past.

There are several reasons I liked it, one of them primarily because it was written in the glory days of airline travel when it still was a luxury and for the privileged few.  In fact when I read it, it already was two decades old.

I came to know of this book through a young enthusiastic kid in college, who headed the NCC and scouts unit.  I had nothing in common with him, except he was in debating and I was in quizzing teams of college and had to travel together to events and organise some in our college. One of the things I liked about him was his easy confidence given his cosmopolitan background, coming from Tatanagar in Jamshedpur even though his parents were from Andhra. Also he was fairly popular among the girls and easy to do so given his cheerful nature, even though this was a fairly conservative time and area - both my friend and I were in a boys-only institution and got to meet other female students only during inter-collegiate events and very rarely socially.

One day he just happened to mention the phrase in some situation (I think we were talking about one of the judges) and I didn’t laugh and he then asked me if I knew what he was saying, and I admitted I couldn’t place the reference.  He got me the book the next day and it was one of his treasured possessions in the hostel, and the book clearly looked dog eared and had that yellowish tinge showing it was from a different era.

I read it several times then, it was one of the most easy ones to read – and boy was it fun.

‘Coffee, tea or me?’ was a sensational book for its time, written by two air stewardesses from Pan Am (the biggest airline of the US in the second half of the 20th century, now shut down) who were BFFs.  The book talks about their journey to becoming air hostesses, their training, their initial working experience and of course all the wonderful times they had across various flights, sectors, passengers, celebrities.

I couldn’t place a lot of American references, and the colloquialisms were refreshing but I knew I was missing the punch in quite a few of them.

What was refreshing, and especially for us boys, was the absolutely frank, and even explicit discussion of sex in the book – no, not the graphic detail, but both the dynamics and encounters of these hostesses with the cabin staff as well as passengers. They mention that air travelling made people horny and want to own the claim if it is proved scientifically.  There are a lot of episodes discussed very openly of what really goes on between pilots and stewardesses, between the cabin staff, how perverts man handle or make innocent mistakes, and of course how some celebrities turned out.  It was also one of the few times and possibly the first time that there was a discussion about lesbians and how one celebrity gave these girls a surprise by coming on to them.

I was young when I read it, and perhaps that was what stuck in my mind.  But when I think back, the book was one of the most easy ones to read – the language very refreshing, like someone talking to you personally or on stage like a stand up comic would. The topics were maha interesting and the book flowed naturally.  There were a lot of saucy cartoons of women in girdles and heavy bosoms with the high hair and bouffants from the time.  No wonder it became such a  hit, and that phrase very common.

For me it was one of the rites of passage, and even though the book was already decades old, it was ahead of my times in terms of social outlook and lifestyle.  Perhaps someone reading it now in India will find it out of place wrt the technology but will definitely love the writing and relate to the episodes they’re talking about.