The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- One has to travel abroad in order to experience India at its worst

The man sitting next to me in Bangkok airport’s departure lounge raised his arms over his head and remained with hands clasped in the air in yogic posture. A few inches from my nose, his armpit stank. No labourer on roads and bridges he, but a well-dressed bhadralok booked on the same Thai flight to Calcutta.

It used to be an empty plane but for a few well-behaved chokras going to Bangkok with no luggage and returning laden with cheap contraband. Nowadays, it’s packed with assertive passengers demanding money’s worth and more. With Stinking Armpit mercifully across the aisle, I read on board of the Chinese Communist Party’s Spiritual Civilisation Steering Committee campaign to stop “uncouth” Chinese going abroad. According to the China Daily, they spit, clear their throats loudly, shout into mobile phones and take off their shoes in planes. “The behaviour of some Chinese travellers is not compatible with the nation’s economic strength and its growing international status,” says a party spokesman.

I wish Indians were as moved by pride or sensitivity. This has nothing to do with ethnic profiling or terrorist alarms. But whether Non-Resident Indian, People of Indian Origin or plain desi, manual worker or professional, those who fly cattle class like me, share common traits that are as offensive as anything China Daily complains of.

Paradoxically, I have to travel abroad to experience India at its worst. The logical corollary to Malcolm Muggeridge’s claim that the only Englishmen left in the world are Indians is that the only Indians lurk in a time-warp in Silicon Valley or Southall. Mine is, of course, a restricted world at home and even its walls are being breached. The splash of Pan Paraag in the club lavatory and a member twiddling his bare toes in the reading room while bellowing in Hindi to his broker on his cell phone could have been on any flight from Leicester.

Indians used to be diffident abroad, especially in the West, and with good reason. Khushwant Singh’s advice when I was taking up a posting in London soon after Enoch Powell’s outburst was to “haw-haw it out” at Heathrow. Just back from England, Neena Vyas, daughter of the veteran editor, Sham Lal, and herself a journalist, said she avoided unpleasantness only by claiming to work for the “Indian embassy”. Visiting America’s Deep South a decade earlier, Mohie Das, anglicized first Indian head of Mackinnon Mackenzie, carried a turban to clamp on his head when entering restaurants. Maharajahs escaped discrimination.

If colour prejudice forced Indians to exercise restraint, confidence has opened the floodgates of exuberance. Paul Theroux says anyone who has sat next to an Indian on a plane can vouch for their loquacity. Film star Amisha Patel’s reported tantrum with Mumbai’s Air India staff reminded me of Indian Airlines’ counter at Changi airport when IA still flew from Singapore to Calcutta. Passengers who queued quietly for Singapore Airlines bunched round the IA desk, waving tickets and passports, pushing and shoving. Being an extension of home, IA allowed Indians to be Indian.

It’s taking an ell — or mile in the modern version — when given an inch. An English diarist at a reception in Delhi’s Metcalfe House some years before 1857 noted a clutch of Mughal princes carefully watching the British guests while adopting an air of proud disdain. They were all bows and salaams the moment they thought a Brit had noticed them. If disappointed, they quickly retreated again into arrogant hauteur.

An everyday manifestation of that complex is the difficulty of maintaining affable distance from juniors. It’s accepted to be overbearing with subordinates and subservient to superiors. The Chogyal of Sikkim once commented on the dichotomous nature of the Indian army officers he liked to entertain at the Gangtok palace. They cringed and fawned when first ushered into the presence; after a few glasses of his single malt whisky they slapped him on the back and called him by his first name which no Sikkimese ever dreamt of doing. Friendliness encourages familiarity. Freedom leads to licence.

I mentioned cattle class. Since government officials and politicians are automatically upgraded, Air India’s higher classes exhibit the same traits. A public sector executive going abroad for the first time hissed in my ear that the business class hostess hospitably pressing a glass of champagne on us was — perhaps for that very reason — “little bit forward”.

But innocents abroad are any day preferable to johnny know-alls who go wild on the perks of flying and treat the crew as personal servants. Freed from inhibition and with no fear any longer of being repulsed on grounds of race or status, they peremptorily demand drinks before take-off, complain about the food, call loudly for magazines, headsets and blankets, constantly open the overhead lockers and stroll up and down the aisle forcing advancing meal trolleys to retreat. Bathrooms are a filthy mess in their wake. Only the scowling surliness of Aeroflot’s male stewards keeps them silent in their seats. But all timidity vanishes with the Russian girl handling connections at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport.

Such is the level of English of many flyers that I heard a Royal Brunei hostess warn another, “They don’t understand ‘vegetarian’. You must say ‘aloo-gobi!’” I have filled in landing cards for countless passengers who produce their passports when asked for name and address, but never for an unlettered qualified surgeon, as Tapan Raychaudhuri, the historian, had to do. Though with a surgery degree from some Uttar Pradesh university, the woman called the entire British Isles — including Dublin where she was joining her doctor husband — “London”.

Airlines understand their traffic. Emirates service improves miraculously once Dubai has been left behind. For Lufthansa, it’s Frankfurt. Ask for a martini on an Air India flight east of Calcutta and the steward will offer you only hard spirits with the polite explanation that sophisticated cocktails are available only on Western routes. A steward on IA’s early morning Bangkok-Calcutta flight used to walk down the aisle with an open bottle of Black Label, pouring out generous libations. Passengers complained if he didn’t.

Drink can be demeaning. Though the Qantas hostess snapped that the bar was closed for landing, a passenger from Mumbai to Cairns pleaded for more free champagne because he had never before been upgraded. London is the worst route. Field hands who have acquired an insatiable appetite for whisky and a raucous bonhomie when reborn as factory hands in Britain invite the superciliousness of British Airways crews with little other experience of Indians. A Britindian hostess stopped at the noisy drinkers behind us to say in heavily accented Hindi that they made her feel ashamed of being Indian.

I suspect that despite personal crudities, Chinese flyers are less demanding. Not feeling quite as deprived at home, they don’t greedily mop up as many goodies as possible in the shortest time. Westerners sometimes claim that China is a more serious nation, less given to distractions. Its civilizing mission will last till the end of 2008 when Beijing will host the Summer Olympics. According to official statistics, Chinese tourists last year made 31 million foreign and 1.2 billion domestic trips. They are expected to make 100 million overseas trips by 2020.

Indians won’t be lagging behind, meaning I will have to fly to London, Singapore or Bangkok, my usual destinations, in even greater cattle-class anguish. That doesn’t matter. But the national image that will be projected does. I wish that instead of exhorting us to welcome foreigners as honoured guests, Jawaharlal Nehru had insisted on a crash course in manners — mandatory like P Forms, income tax clearance and other nightmares of the past — before going abroad. Deportment rules were laid down for official entertainment and Indian Administrative Service trainees because he realized, long before the authors of China’s second cultural revolution, that politeness cannot be taken for granted.

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