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Last Updated: Tuesday, 10 January 2006, 09:55 GMT
Swimsuits and stilettos in Delhi winter

By Nick Bryant
BBC News, Delhi

Winter days in India's capital, Delhi, and a unique job interview are a few of the things the BBC's South Asia correspondent jots down in his diary.

'BOLLYWOOD BIKINERATI'

Delhi can be mercilessly chilly during the opening weeks of January.

Heavy fog covers India gate in Delhi
Delhi has just experienced its coldest day in 70 years

Central-heating devoid houses constructed to withstand the furnace-like temperatures of high summer seem more like well-upholstered cold rooms.

Delay signs clog the departure boards at the city's Indira Gandhi Airport since its runways are normally enveloped by early morning mists.

So imagine my surprise the other afternoon at finding my favourite outdoor swimming pool absolutely teeming with glamorous young people, in what looked, from a distance at least, like a cross between spring break in Cancun and a Mumbai movie premier.

Swimsuits, stilettos and Speedos abounded.

A pool normally frequented by septuagenarian retired civil servants, pasty European tourists and overweight foreign correspondents had seemingly been invaded by the "Bollywood bikinerati".

And this on what was supposedly one of Delhi's coldest days in years.

As I got closer, the poolside revellers seemed to be undertaking some kind of bizarre initiation ceremony.

IN AT THE DEEP END

A joyless woman wearing dark sunglasses and even darker lipstick was instructing them to leap into the deep end, swim half a length and then return to the side of the pool.

Those that completed this brief aquatic adventure were labelled "eligible".

Those who floundered were cast out as "rejects".

After further investigation, all was revealed.

Far from being a poolside party, this was actually the preliminary stage of a job interview.

A Virgin Atlantic plane in San Francisco
Virgin Atlantic makes its applicants swim before they fly

By leaping like lemmings into the pool, these twenty-somethings were actually hoping to launch their careers on an upward trajectory.

For they were taking part in a recruitment drive by Virgin Atlantic, an airline which stipulates that all its cabin crew must be able to swim - something which a surprisingly high number of Indians cannot do.

With six new airlines taking off over the past 12 months, air hostesses and flight stewards are in hot demand.

Stewardess schools offering "modules" in everything from "aviation history" to "cold beverages" are springing up all over the country.

Last year, there were constant allegations of how rival low-cost airlines were poaching each other's staff.

Senior air hostesses can earn up to 75,000 rupees a month - about $1,500 - which is great money in a country where 40% of the population struggle to survive on less than $1 a day.

Even on a biting winter afternoon, there was no shortage of volunteers willing to go half-a-length for a bulging pay packet like that - taking the plunge, in the most literal sense of all.

FASTEN YOUR SEATBELTS

The more corpulent members of staff at the country's state-owned Air India are being encouraged to undertake more rigorous work-outs.

In fact, they are under strict instructions to do so.

Some 10% of the airline's 1,600-strong cabin crew is thought to be overweight or suffering from obesity.

Some apparently struggle even to fasten their seat belts.

Last month, Air India gave its staff the option of either fighting the flab or taking a hike.

New weight restrictions take effect in two months time.

Those with excess baggage are surplus to requirements.

INDIA TAKING OFF

The changes taking place in the skies above India mirror the changes overtaking the country down below.

Air stewardesses from private airlines
Many private budget airlines are entering the Indian aviation sector

With the Indian aviation market expected to expand by some 45m passengers over the next five years, they speak of the unremitting growth of the Indian middle class.

With Air India set to buy 68 new aircraft from Boeing over the next 10 years, they speak of the country's heady global ambitions and, especially, its ever more chummy relationship with America.

With Indian carriers now challenging long-established international airlines, on quality, reliability and service, they speak of the country's growing competitiveness and the end of its economic isolation.

No wonder that one of its more successful new airlines claims in its promotional material to embody "the spirit of new India".

No wonder that the Kingfisher brewing company, one of India's strongest global brands, has recently launched a low-cost airline.

A country renowned for the romanticism of its railways might one day be known for the efficiency of its airlines.

Last week my overnight flight from London to Delhi was inevitably delayed for three hours because of early morning fog at Delhi.

But hours before leaving for Heathrow I was helpfully alerted to this potentially irritating hold-up by a text message from the Indian airline sent via my Indian mobile carrier.

The Delhi winter ended up being only a mild inconvenience - chased away by the white heat of the country's commercial and technological revolution.


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