Tuesday, March 22, 2016

ORDEALS OF AN AIR INDIA PASSENGER Atrocious Irresponsibility and Unbelievable Apathy on the Part of AI Management

I had to make a quick visit to Kolkata and had booked flights on AI 401 on March 19th and AI 701 on 20th. My experience on both flights left a bitter taste.

Flight AI 401 from Delhi was scheduled to depart 7 AM and boarding was to commence at 6.15 from Gate 34. Around 7 am announcement was made that the flight would take off earliest at 7. 30 am. The reason given “Unavailability of Crew”!! The flight left about 45 minutes late.

Worse was the experience with AI 701.

AI-701 was to leave at 5.30 pm from Kolkata and boarding was to commence at 4.45 from Gate 16 at one end of Terminal. About 5 pm one AI staff came around and said boarding will be from Gate 4 at the other end of the terminal and one floor below.

So everyone trudged along carrying their hand luggage with them to the other end of the terminal and down one floor. However, boarding could not commence as the Gate was already allotted to Indigo and the Indigo staff at the Gate insisted that AI could commence boarding only after Indigo. Some rankling went on for a while between the staff from the two airlines and finally Indigo boarding was moved to Gate 3. AI passengers left through Gate 4 and were bused in to the Dreamliner, which I noticed was parked near the Repair sheds and not on the tarmac.

What followed was atrocious!

When the flight was about to take off the Captain announced that there was some technical snag and we would have to return to the block for engineers to correct the snag. It might take 30 to 45 minutes, he said.

The plane returned to the block and the doors were opened. Some passengers alighted from the plan, which I though was quite strange. (Later I learned from news report it was to let off the Pakistani High Commissioner and some 50 passengers quietly)

Then came the announcement that it might take 15 minutes for the engineers to know how long it would take to correct the snag. After an hour or so Captain announced that the snag may not be corrected soon and that an alternate aircraft would take most of the passengers to Delhi at 10.30 pm. Remaining passengers would be given hotel accommodation (which to my knowledge did not happen).

Dinner was served around 8. Pm.

Around 9 (or was it 10?) pm all were told to deplane and return to the terminal building. No clear information was forthcoming.
At the terminal there was not a single IA official and the passengers were left in the lurch. After an hour or so two AI staff appeared. They could not give any clear information. One of them kept shouting in to his walkie-talkie “Coordination, coordination.”…

No news about the flight that was to leave at 10.30 pm.

After midnight, one passenger (who had been trying to make some sense of the situation from the officials and pacifying the angry and shouting passengers)  tried to bring some order. He asked those who would like to cancel their ticket or fly the next day form one group and those who would like to leave for Delhi that night itself to form another group.

Those who wanted to leave that night were then told to go the check-in counters on the next floor to get new boarding passes.

But the computers at the check-in counters would not function for some time, adding to the frustration of the passengers. Then the computers worked for some time and a few new boarding passes were given. Then the computers failed to function again…. It took about two hours for all to be checked in.

Further frustration and distress followed after boarding the second aircraft. The flight could not take off because there was no Captain or crew to fly the plane! This resulted in some ugly scenes between the hapless AI staff and some very angry and frustrated passengers.

Finally at 4 am came the first official announcement (after the Dreamliner captain’s at around 8 pm) that the aircraft will leave for Delhi at 6.45 am and that breakfast will be served shortly.”
Until then from sinner served at 8 pm no water or refreshments had been served to the passengers among whom were several babies.

And the passengers waited…. and waited for the promised breakfast and the commencement of the flight….

Finally the flight (on an Airbus 321) took off with a full load, with some new passengers and a VIP politician who was ushered in solemnly with a number of AI officials in toe to the jeers of “Shame! Shame!” from some of the frustrated, weary and angry Dreamliner passengers at 6.45 and breakfast was served at 8 am! 

Flight AI 701 scheduled to leave at 5.30 pm on 20th March finally landed in Delhi at 8.50 am on 21st March. During the entire drama senior AI officials were conspicuously absent, enjoying I guess a good night’s sleep in their cozy bedrooms or offices.

Returning to my office on March 22nd morning (I had missed my train on 20th night and had to scramble on to long distance bus on 21st night from Delhi) I sent off a “Feedback” to Air India, with the following:

“You are already familiar with events on CCU-DEL flight 701 on 20/3. The way passengers were treated was atrocious and totally irresponsible on the part of the AI management! There was unbelievable apathy toward the distress of passengers, especially of children and mothers.

A few questions for the senior management to answer:

1. Why were no official announcements made for several hours after the Captains announcement that there was a technical snag and that a flight would be leaving at 10. 30 pm and as many passengers as possible would be accommodated on that flight? Passengers were wandering from pillar to post to get some information. The only official communication was made at 4.00 am on 21st after passengers were left shouting and screaming at the uninformed staff in a second aircraft for several hours?

2. Why were AI officials not present at the airport when passengers were deplaned and returned to the terminal? The two officials who came later on had no clear information for passengers? Then only thing I heard them say was calling “Co-Ordination” on their walkie-talkie and giving no information to the passengers. This means they too were not getting any clear information? Or, did they get information and did not want to communicate the truth to the passengers? (There was a feeling among many passengers that AI knew their plans – that no flight would take off until 21st morning, and were deliberately keeping the passengers in the dark!)

3. Why was water and refreshments denied to passengers (including babies and mothers) for several hours -  all the time they were left in the airport -- and until 8 am on 21st after the Airbus A321 flight took off?

4. Why was the flight at 22.30 announced by the Dreamliner captain not take off? And why was no further announcements made about that flight?

5. Why were passengers boarded on to a 2nd flight (boarding time 1.45 am) before captain and crew availability was confirmed and passengers left there until flight departed at 6.45am on 21st (that is for five hours!!).

6. From news reports I learned that a group of passengers along with the Pakistani High Commissioner was accommodated on a flight on 20th night itself? If this were true, what was the criteria used to select these passengers? And why was that a secret arrangement with other passengers not informed of the this flight? (Or, was it the 10.30 flight announced by the captain on the Dreamliner?)

There is much more I can say. However, the only thing I can conclude is that AI was totally irresponsible toward the passengers and unbelievably apathetic toward their distress.

I have spent quite a bit of time writing these. I do hope that those responsible will reflect on this and be more responsible and passenger-friendly in the future.

Quite a “Maharaja” treatment – promised us in the Dreamliner, I should say! No wonder the passengers shouted “Shame! Shame” when a politician VIP was escorted to the plane on 21st morning just before take-off!!

Dr. Jose Parappully

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Pathos and History: Walking Across the Bridge On the River Kwai

My visit to the Kanchanburi province and town in Thailand, some 120 km west of Bangkok, this past weekend (5-6 March), was memorable. Among other things most touching was a visit to the Bridge on the River Kwai, made famous by the award winning movie of the same name starring Alec Guinness, and walking through the Death Railway.

I was facilitating a two-week long Workshop at the Redemptorist Spirituality Centre at Minburi, located on the campus of the Ruamrudeee International School. The weekends being free I and the participants had the opportunity for some sightseeing.

While the participants went to Ratchaburi for a River Cruise (an experience I had earlier), I chose to visit Kanchanaburi as a friend had volunteered to make all the arrangements and accompany me as well.

Amphawa Floating Market

Our first stop en route was the famous Floating Market at Amphawa. Although I had visited a number of Floating Markets on my previous visits to Thailand, this most famous one I had missed, and I was very happy that the opportunity came my way. Unfortunately we were rather early, as the markets on the water open only by 10 am and all the excitement is toward evening.

We proceeded to Kanchanaburi after a nice breakfast at the Market and having made some useful purchases.

War Memorial Cemetery

At Kanchanburi we first stopped at the War Memorial Cemetery, celebrating the life and death of thousands of allied soldiers of the commonwealth countries who gave their lives to stop the onward march of the Japanese through Asia during the 2nd World War. The Cemetery was very similar to the one at Kohima (North East India) that I had visited a few years ago. 

At the entrance to the Cemetery there is a special memorial plaque for the Indian soldiers who died but whose bodies could not be retrieved.

Death Railway

Across the road from the Cemetery is the Death Railway Museum.

The Death Railway (The Burma-Thailand Railway) has a horrendous story to tell.

The Japanese in pursuit of their aggressive plans to conquer Asia wanted a quick land route to Burma and India through Thailand. They pressed into service around 60 thousand prisoners of war from the Commonwealth Countries and over two hundred thousand peasants as labourers to work day and night, cutting through dense jungle and rock to build a railroad connecting Thailand and Burma.

“Their experiences covered the range of human ordeal and endurance, from illness and starvation to slave labour. Up to 90,000 Asian labourers and approximately 12,000 Allied Prisoners of War who worked on the railway died. They died from disease, starvation or brutality…” (from the Commemorative Plaque).

Bridge Over the River Kwai

“The Bridge Over the River Kwai” starring Alec Guinness celebrates one incident during the construction of the infamous railroad.

The original bridge, made of wood and bamboos, has been replaced by a solid iron Bridge and trains are still operating over it. It was a moving experience to walk on the Bridge.

Somehow as I approached the Bridge I felt a sad tranquility coming over me – a certain sense of pathos at a deep unconscious level, feeling the pain and suffering perpetrated by a brutal war machine.

Hellfire Pass

Further up into the hills I was able to walk through the actual railroad, although much of the rail has disappeared, and a gravel path has been prepared over where the rail stood. Occasionally one comes across bits of the rail and the ruined sleepers and some the implements and objects used by the workers on the railroad.

The most infamous section on the railroad is known as “Hellfire Pass” where the rocks had to be cut through 12 to 15 meters using hand-held drills and hammers. At some point the Japanese brought forward the completion date and introduced “Speedo” – round the clock work, fire brands supplying light at night. Hellfire Pass was a fitting name for the hellish ordeal of the famished and tired workers and the fire brands lighting up the night.

One of the commemorative slabs at Hellfire Pass has these deeply touching words which reflect also a deeply held personal conviction of mine – that ultimately it is our loving relationships that really matter:

“It [time spent helping the sick during the construction of the railway] gave me a great understanding of men. And a great appreciation of the ordinary things of life…. And the value of human relations. You know, when it comes to the end, the only thing that really matters are the people whom you love and who love you.” Dr. Kevin Fagan who served in 1943 as a doctor on the Burma-Thailand Railway, as a prisoner of war of the Japanese.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

MEETING POPE FRANCIS – Personification of the Prodigal Father

I had not imagined this would happen. I was able to greet Pope personally, kiss his hands and exchange a few words. 
 My opportunity came because I was a member of the General Chapter of the Salesians held in Rome from 22nd February to April 14. 

During the last week of March the members of the new General Council, including a new Superior General were elected.  

On the last day of the month, the new General Council along with all the members of the General Chapter had a private audience with Pope Francis in the Clementine Hall at the Vatican.

We reached the Vatican around 10.00 am. We were able to enter St. Basilica of St. Peter through a private entrance.
 Holy Mass was going on in the Basilica at the time. However, space had been reserved for us in front of the tomb of St. Peter and we were allowed in.

The newly elected Rector Major Fr. Angel Fernandez led us in the Profession Faith in front of the tomb of St. Peter. We then turned to the statue of Don Bosco, which is right above the statue of St. Peter, a few metres away from the tomb. The Rector Major then led us in the prayer to Don Bosco that had been composed by the former Rector Major Pasucal Chaves as preparation for the General Chapter. 
 After that we had ample time to pray personally as well as to take photographs. The Rector Major was very obliging and posed with several members individually and in small groups in front of the tomb of St. Peter.
Around 11.00 am we moved out of the Basilica toward the Clementine Hall. There were a number of places where we stopped as a group under the directions of the Swiss Guards (they were all very young and very handsome!).
 Finally having walked up a number of flights of stairs (there were so many of them!) we entered the Clementine Hall and waited for the Pope.

The Clementine Hall, in memory of Pope Clement VIII, is remarkable for the frescoes that cover the ceiling and the walls. I was especially impressed by the representation of “Goodness” and “Religion” that stood out right in front, along with the Coat of Arms of Clement VIII.
 The Rector Majors (emeritus and present) and members of the General Council (past and present) took their seats in the front and second row. In deference to the Argentine origins of Pope Francis, all the Chapter members from Argentina were called in front to sit just behind the Council Members.

At precisely 12.00 noon all the doors of the Clementine Hall were shut. There was a buzz of anticipation in the Hall, and curiosity! Which door will Pope Francis use to enter the hall? Will be come from the back door and walk through the aisle greeting those on either side?
After a few moments, the official Vatican photographers entered, microphone was set in place. And the Pope entered from the right, through one of the larger doors. The hall resounded with applause.
Pope Francis went straight to Pascual Chaves (Rector Major Emeritus) and greeted him with a warm embrace. He then moved to Fr. Angel Fernandez and did the same. The staccato of the official photographers’ cameras was like that of rapid fire machine guns!

The Pope then moved to his chair, which was not on a platform but on the same level on the floor as the chairs of members in the audience. I think there was a message in that. Later, in a photo-book on the Clementine Hall, I noticed that earlier there was a two-step platform on which the chair was placed.
Fr. Angel then read a brief message of greeting.

Pope Francis then read his message, in Italian. He looked up from his prepared text a few times and spoke from his heart.
The one spontaneous exhortation that stood out for me and one which he said with the greatest intensity, and I thought with some sorrow, was this (from my understanding of Italian): “I know you Salesians work for young people. But work for the really needy young. There are 75 million young people who are unemployed today.”
 I thought the Pope looked tired and his voice too seemed tired. His usual smiles and serene countenance were not so evident (though they came through occasionally).  I think the burden of his Petrine Ministry is beginning to weigh on him.

After the Pope concluded his message, the Members of the General Council, and the Argentinian delegation walked up front to greet the Pope individually.
And then an announcement was made that the Pope wanted to greet every member of the Chapter in person. The hall resounded with applause at the announcement.

Some members tried to kneel as they greeted the Pope. But he prevented each of them from doing so, lifting them up. When my turn came, I kissed his hands and told him: “I bring you the good wishes and prayers from many people in India.” I too had tried to kneel, but he gently prevented me.
What stands out for me from the meeting is the simplicity and more especially the cordiality, familiarity and fatherliness. I think Pope Francis is making a conscious effort to put aside the pomp and power and be what Popes are meant to be – a father and a good shepherd. 

As I recently read in an article on Pope Francis in The New Yorker – The Prodigal Father is returning to his home. A father who personifies mercy and compassion.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014


The 27th General Chapter of the Salesians of Don Bosco this morning elected Rev. Angel Artime Fernandes (age 53) as the new Rector Major of the Society and the 10th Successor of Don Bosco.

He was born on 21 August 1960 at Gozon-Luanco, in the Asturie region of Spain.

Fr Fernandes has degrees in theology, philosophy and Pastoral Pedagogy.

He  belonged originally to the Salesian Province of Leon, Spain. He has served as Principal of a school, Province delegate for Youth Pastoral, member of the Provincial Council, and Vice Provincial before being appointed Provincial of Leon in 2000 and completed his six year term in 2006.

He was a member of the Technical Commission that prepared for the 26th General Chapter.

In 2009 Fr. Angel was appointed Provincial of the Salesian Province of Argentina South, a responsibility he carried out with great efficacy until today.

As Provincial he collaborated on a number of projects with then Archbishop of Buenos Aires – and now Pope Francesco.

Fr Fernandez is known for his administrative skills and pastoral concern, both of which will assist him to open a new chapter in the history of the Salesian Congregation.

Sunday, March 23, 2014


In this homily I pick up three thematic words from today’s sacred scripture, make a few brief reflections, ask some questions and give time for us to open ourselves to whatever arises spontaneously within us as response and perhaps also speak to God quietly in our hearts.

The first word: JOURNEY

In today’s’ first reading we are reminded of the journey of the Jewish people from Egypt to the Promised Land. I am sure they had set out on that journey with great enthusiasm, glad to leave behind their slavery and oppression. But today we find them tired of that journey; they are discontented and grumble against Moses their leader. They want to go back to the slavery in Egypt.

Referring to ourselves: We are today making multiple journeys simultaneously. For example: we have our spiritual and vocational journey. We are making a Lenten Journey; and we are experiencing together in a special way the journey of this General Chapter.

How do we really feel about these journeys? What is happening to us on these journeys? What is the level of our enthusiasm and passion on our spiritual and vocational journey? What progress have we made on our Lenten Journey? Have we really experienced any “metanoia”/conversion or life continues as usual?

In this context, I recall a sentence from the book of Revelation that I often meditate upon. In Chapter two, in the letter to the Christian community at Ephesus, the one like the Son of Man says: I am very happy with all that you have accomplished for my name’s sake. “But I have this against you. You have lost the love you had in the beginning” (Rev. 2, 4 ). 

This condemnation perhaps may have some relevance to the first module of our Chapter theme: Mystics in the Spirit. Has our focus on frenetic apostolic activity made us forget the primacy of God – the passion for God which is the primary rationale for our religious life choice? We could be working very hard for God and forget that God for whom we are working. Could this be true of us?

Lent is a time to recapture the love we had in the beginning. What efforts are we making to that effect? ….
We have been making our Chapter journey for a long time, more than three years beginning with the Provincial Chapters. We have been making this journey more intensely here at the Generalate for nearly a month now. How are we feeling about this journey at this juncture? Are we tired, disappointed, dissipated, even grumbling like the Jews, or still full of passion, enthusiasm and optimism? How do we really feel about way the Chapter is functioning?

We pause a moment to stay with whatever has been evoked in us through these considerations …. And may be also speak honestly to God about what has been evoked….

Second Word: THIRST

The Jewish people on the desert road thirsted for water. Thirst brings the Samaritan woman to the well. Her thirst for love/lust had led her to five husbands. They had not satiated her. And she was still thirsting. Thirsting for truth; thirsting for social acceptance and inclusiveness; thirsting for some certainty about the messiah. Can we see something of this woman in us? What? …

Jesus is thirsty and asks the woman for a drink. What does this image of Jesus sitting at the well, alone, tired, longing for a cup of water evoke in us? …

What are we really thirsting for? What is the desire welling up from deep within us? St. Ignatius of Loyola said, “You are your deepest desire.” Do we recognise what our deepest desire today is? If we do, what are we doing to satisfy it? …

Do we know what our young people today are really thirsting for? What to do we do to satisfy that thirst? Recognising and responding to that thirst might make us Servants of the Young.

--------- (Pause for reflection and prayer) ------

Third Word: GIFT (“Donum Dei”)

Jesus tells the Samaritan woman: “If only you knew the gift of God…” He then speaks of “living waters” as the gift. We know that scripture scholars and theologians have provided many interpretations as to what that gift is; what the living water is.

 We don’t need to bother about any of those interpretations. They are really irrelevant.

What is relevant is what we ourselves recognise that gift to be for us today.  What is the gift Jesus is offering each of us personally today? What is the gift that the Lord is offering our Congregation through this 27th General Chapter at this critical juncture in its history? How are we opening ourselves to these gifts?

What is the gift that the Lord wants to offer young people today through us, through our congregation? How are our discussions and deliberations in the Chapter helping us to discern this gift?
….. (Pause for reflection and prayer) …..

An Indian Twist on the Samaritan Woman Story

I like to conclude these reflections with a few lines from Rabindranath Tagore, the Indian poet, from his Nobel Prize winning little book “Gitanjali” (Garland/Offering of Songs) that can add a new perspective to the Samaritan Woman’s story and personalise it:

“I was alone at the well where the shadow of the tree fell aslant, and the women had gone home with their brown earthen pitchers full to the brim. They called me and shouted, “Come with us, the morning is wearing on to noon. But I languidly lingered a while lost in the midst of vague musings.
I heard not thy steps as thou camest. Thine eyes were sad when they fell on me; the voice was tired as thou spokest low – “Ah, I am a thirsty traveller.”
I started up from my day-dream and poured water from my jar on thine joined palms.
I stood speechless with shame when my name thou didst ask. Indeed, what had I done for thee to keep me in remembrance?
But the memory that I could give water to thee to allay thy thirst will cling to my heart and enfold it in sweetness.”

….. (Pause for reflection and prayer) …..

Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be. Amen.

Friday, March 21, 2014

News and Views from Rome – 8: CONCERT AT THE SISTINE CHAPEL

Today, 19th March, the Feast Day of St. Joseph,  I joined the members of the General Chapter of the Salesians of Don Bosco for a visit to the Vatican. We were to attend a Concert at the Sistine Chapel.

The Sistine Chapel Choir is currently led by a Salesian – Msgr. Massimo Palombella. He was appointed to this post by Pope Benedict in 2010. He is also a professor at the Pontifical Salesian University of Rome ion the faculty of Theology, Music and Liturgy.

We entered the Vatican through the back door next to St. Martha’s where Pope Francis resides. We could walk through the Vatican Gardens (where the Popes take their private walk) and had a view of St. Peter’s Basilica, not available to the normal tourist.

Even though the concert was a private performance, exclusively for the members of the General Chapter (what a privilege), there was a glossy eight page programme brochure describing the musical pieces that would be performed. The Vatican does things in style! 

The concert in itself was fantastic. It was mostly performance by the Sistine Chapel Choir of famous choral pieces. The clarity and harmony of voices were remarkable. The two pieces that stood out for their grandeur, at least for me, were “Stabat Mater” and “Credo” both by Palestrina.

There were also two organ recitals by Juan Paradell Sole, The Titular Organist of the Sistine Chapel choir.
At the end of the 90 minute concert the audience expressed their appreciation through prolonged applause, which lasted several minutes.

Cardinal Tarcisius Bertone  (a Salesian) and his successor, the current Secretary of State, Archbishop Pietro Parolin, were both present during the Concert.  At the end of the Concert Parolin gave the Salesian “Good Night, for the second time in his life, he said; the first was when he visited the Salesians in the heart of the Amazon. He was glad, he said, today’s Good Night is to an international group of Salesians. He was familiar with the Salesians in Venezuela where he had been the Vatican Envoy earlier.

A number of us remarked among ourselves on the simplicity of Parolin, dressed in simple clergy attire, quite a contrast to the Princes of the Church at the Vatican. That must be one of the reasons Pope Francis chose him to be his Secretary of State.  Parolin has also been very active in peace and justice issues in South America.

We were back at the Generalate for supper.  And praise the Lord!  We were served beer for the first time! That really marked the feast day of St. Joseph as different from all our days at the Chapter.