Obituary: Maneck Dalal


April 28, 2017

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Maneck Dalal, the man responsible for expanding Air India into an international operation, began his career with the airline looking after celebrity passengers. In the late 1940s, when the Hollywood star Errol Flynn was thrown off a BOAC plane in London for being drunk, it was Dalal who arranged for him to be transferred to an Air India flight. “By then he had sobered up and was charming,” Dalal recalled. “He said ‘Call me Errol’ and he asked me to make sure that his girlfriend left for Europe in two hours.” Ever polite, Dalal made small talk with Flynn’s female companion, who claimed to be a penniless eastern European princess.

With his beautiful manners and his impeccable dress sense — he was partial to a Savile Row suit when funds allowed — Dalal acquired something of a fan club among Air India’s celebrity passengers. His “network” became so extensive that when Barbara Cartland, the romance novelist, wanted to feature an Indian prince in one of her plots, she turned to Dalal and he was able to introduce her to a maharaja who was a frequent flyer.

Dalal regularly met Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India and a man known for his impatience. Once, arriving in Heathrow from New York, Nehru demanded to be taken to a particular café a considerable distance away, against the will of his security team. Dalal smoothed the way and arranged for a full English breakfast. Sitting opposite the jet-lagged prime minister, he was relieved when Nehru gave him a big smile and exclaimed: “That was quite a long way!” On another occasion Dalal was asked to accompany Nehru and a “friend” to a West End cinema. The friend turned out to be Nehru’s lover, Lady Edwina Mountbatten.

As well as tact, Dalal was known for his diplomacy. When his air hostesses threatened to refuse to fly a businessman who had suffered leprosy, Dalal made a point of shaking hands with the man in question and offering him coffee as he explained, in an uncharacteristic flirtation with the facts, that the flight was full. The businessman accepted the explanation and the tense situation was defused.

The most dramatic moment of Dalal’s career came during India’s bloody Partition from Pakistan in 1947, when he was 28. Then running Air India’s office in Delhi, he recalled Connaught Circus being full of dead bodies: “They just lay there, because no one dared to pick them up in case they themselves were fiercely attacked.” In his official capacity he was responsible for transporting Muslims from Delhi in India to Lahore in Pakistan. With angry mobs gathering outside the airport, he protected Muslim women passengers by giving them Hindu red tikkas on their foreheads and Hindu names. Every morning he was given a list of names of people who had been prioritised. “I would often have middle-aged Muslims in my office, literally begging me to take them and their families out of Delhi and offering me huge sums of money to do so,” he recalled.

One afternoon when he came home from the office for lunch, there were four Sikhs with swords bared outside his gate. His 21-year-old English wife, newly arrived from England, saw a man with a machete dripping blood running through the garden. Dalal received a telephone call from a man threatening to kill him. “I couldn’t believe it was real. I thought it was a friend larking around and told him, ‘Look, I’m very tired.’ ” He and his wife promptly moved to the sanctuary of the Imperial Hotel. “It was a tough time,” he wrote.

Maneck Ardeshir Sohrab Dalal was born in Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1918, into the tightly knit Parsi community. His father was a government official and the family were required to move to a town in the country called Nasik. One of four children, he grew up in a large house with a tennis court and gardens full of mango, custard apple and mulberry trees, which he would climb.

His mother was a small, strict woman to whom he was deeply attached. He once shot her with a cork pop-gun and when she pretended to fall he was distraught. He would dance at home with his siblings, rolling up the carpet and playing records on the gramophone.

After doing well at an English-run school he was offered a place at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, in 1937 and set sail for England with a stopover in Port Said. Young and naive, he found himself in a strip club with some of his shipmates. When he reached Cambridge he was shocked to discover that the house he had been allocated had no electricity and no telephone — comforts he had enjoyed in India. He bought a three-piece brown tweed suit and opened his first bank account.

Athletic, slim and handsome, Dalal adored Cambridge and excelled at racket sports — he was a triple blue, who captained the university tennis team and would still beat much younger men later in life — and wooed his first girlfriend, whom he took punting and dancing. He enjoyed telling a story about one of his neighbours in his digs, an Indian prince who told his landlady: “I won’t need any dinner tonight — I am off to London to see the whores.” The prince meant that was he was off to see the Hoares (a well-known family).

He spent “vacs” in a grand house in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, with a wealthy aunt. At one student dance he met a young blonde, blue-eyed girl, called Kathleen Richardson, known as Kay. He proposed to her after playing a tennis match at Wimbledon and took her to dinner at the Savoy. Her father disapproved and insisted that Dalal must first return to India and get a job.

Dalal set up the first Air India flights from London Heathrow to Bombay in the late 1940s

Arriving in Bombay in 1946, he was put in touch with a director at the Tata Group and landed a job with the fledgling Tata Airlines, set up by the industrialist JRD Tata in the 1930s. “I knew nothing about aviation,” Dalal admitted. Rising daily at 4.30am, he learnt the ropes quickly, from passenger reservations to accounts and cargo handling. The planes were mostly Dakotas and the only routes were to Delhi, Calcutta and Karachi. When he managed to clock off early enough, evenings were spent enjoying milkshakes on Marine Drive. He came to admire Tata for his thrifty nature. The tycoon often arrived to business dinners in a shabby Fiat while allowing his driver to ferry his servants’ children in his bigger car.

The company became Air India soon after Dalal joined and he was made manager of the new office in Delhi, living at first in a suite of the Cecil Hotel. He and Kay were reunited and married in England in 1947. Returning to India, they were the only passengers on a new aircraft and were allowed to choose their route via Rome and Cairo.

When he flew he knew most of the passengers, to the chagrin of his wife

After independence the government wanted Air India to become international. Still in his twenties, Dalal was asked to open offices at the overseas terminal in London Heathrow, still a barren area with rabbits bounding around. The airlines based there at first operated from caravans. “In winter months we had oil heaters to try and keep warm. It was a delicate balance between freezing to death and choking from oil fumes.” After a year, there were daily flights to and from India.

Dalal recalled the early days of air travel fondly. Passengers never needed security checks. “They would arrive at wing hangars and wait in comfortable cane armchairs,” he said. At first it took 21 hours to get to India from London. Whenever he flew he knew most of the passengers — to the chagrin of his wife, who would be left to manage their children as he chatted.

By the end of the Fifties Air India was taking about 55 per cent of the passenger traffic from the UK to India. As more Indians came to live in the UK, Dalal sent staff around the country to see how he could attract Indian air traffic. Eventually he was persuaded that if he could keep the economy fare to £200 people could afford to travel to India every two years. He recalled little racism, except for one travel agent in Edinburgh who was genial until he suddenly said: “Tell me laddie, would it be black boys who would fly your planes for you?”

Dalal settled in a comfortable house in Hampton with Kay, a medical social worker, who survives him, and their three daughters. Sue became a solicitor; Caroline a family therapist and his eldest daughter, Tina — born at the same time as the first Air India aircraft was delivered to Heathrow — was a social worker. She died of cancer in 2009.

Dalal retired from Air India in 1977 — by then his knowledge was such that he had become a civil aviation attaché at the Indian High Commission in London. A conscientious man, he declined to leave work early on his final day. The next day he started as managing director of Tata Ltd in the UK. He also chaired various committees, including that of the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan in London, which was devoted to promoting Indian culture and had Lord Mountbatten as its patron. Under Dalal it grew from its home in a room 12ft by 10ft on Oxford Street to the largest Indian cultural centre outside India.

Every summer Dalal would host a champagne party for members of the Cambridge University India Society. “They are my future passengers,” he would say.”