TIME ZONES: An Afternoon Cruising the Indian Skies

A Nice Day to Fly, With Their Feet On the Ground

Lavneet Gyani, right, helps a fellow model-plane enthusiast, Siddarth Grewal, make adjustments to Grewal's plane at a garden south of New Delhi.
Lavneet Gyani, right, helps a fellow model-plane enthusiast, Siddarth Grewal, make adjustments to Grewal's plane at a garden south of New Delhi. (By John Lancaster -- The Washington Post)
By John Lancaster
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, January 11, 2006

DAMDAMA, India

Beneath a pale winter sun, the white-and-orange aircraft climbs skyward until it is nearly vertical, then drops its nose like a hammer and begins what looks like a terminal spin. The pilot, Lavneet Gyani, keeps his cool. Expertly working the controls, he pulls the plane out of its spiral and brings it in for a safe if bouncy landing.

"Not bad," Gyani says, strolling over to the plane and picking it up with one hand.

It is 1:50 p.m. on a chilly Sunday, a day off in the life of the Indian upper-middle class. At a private botanical garden about an hour's drive south of New Delhi, the bearded 33-year-old businessman is indulging his passion for radio-controlled model aircraft. He is joined by several fellow enthusiasts -- in this case, a urological surgeon and a newly minted officer in the Indian merchant navy -- along with his wife and 2-year-old son.

Despite the brisk weather, a dozen friends and their children have turned out to watch, picnicking on blankets at the edge of the immaculate lawn that serves as the temporary airstrip. The mood is relaxed and festive, fueled by Bacardi Breezers and cold Kingfisher beer.

"You know how many planes I've got, as of today?" Vikram Sharma, the surgeon, asks his cousin, Atul Vashisht, a landscape architect who owns the botanical garden and rents it out for corporate retreats and other functions. "Twenty-two. I've been into this for one year."

Gyani is similarly obsessed. During the week, he and his father, a retired army colonel, run a $1-million-a-year garment factory that makes clothes for American brands such as Guess and DKNY. But Sundays are for flying.

The outing begins shortly before 1 p.m. Gyani loads two airplanes into his three-month-old Toyota minivan and, with his wife, child and maid in the back seat, pulls away from the California-style townhouse they share with his parents in the fast-growing Delhi suburb of Gurgaon. A member of the Sikh religious minority, he wears his long hair coiled under a stocking-like "under-turban," which he tops with a baseball cap emblazoned with "New York City" and an American flag. He is dressed in dark slacks, a red V-neck sweater and black Fila running shoes.

Sharing the road with bicycle rickshaws and brightly painted trucks, the family heads away from the capital to the strains of "Play That Funky Music" and other American hits stored on Gyani's MP3 player, which is plugged into the car stereo. They pass gleaming office towers, shopping malls and new housing developments with such names as Malibu Towne and Green Ville.

Suburban sprawl soon gives way to mud-brick villages and yellow mustard fields. After a quick stop at a roadside stand to buy samosas -- pastries filled with a spicy mix of potatoes and peas -- they arrive at the botanical garden, with its 60 acres of rose gardens, herbs and exotic plants against a backdrop of stony hills.

The family is joined by the Siddarth Grewal, the young merchant marine officer, and his fiancee, Lara Chawla, a slender young woman in flared jeans who diplomatically dons what she calls "my interested face" when listening to her future husband talk about model airplanes.

Sharma, the surgeon, turns up with models of two World War II-era fighters, a U.S. Corsair and a British Spitfire whose engine cowling features a snarling shark's mouth that he proudly displays to Gyani.


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