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A traveller’s tale: Fighting our flight instinct

For a foreigner catching for the first time a glimpse of Indians in their natural environment, it could prove positively disquieting

There is no do-over for a bad first impression. Offering a weak handshake or showing up to an interview late will ensure that classmates, colleagues and potential employers think less of you than your stellar resume might demand.

That also applies to a nation of 1.3 billion. Each day this country welcomes more than 20,000 tourists and businessmen. Their initial contact with Indians is often aboard a flight. And if their experiences with Hindustani travellers are anything like mine, their introduction will be a poor one indeed.

Last week I flew from Delhi to Chennai, and from the beginning I was struck with the inane selfishness of some of my fellow-flyers. Right at the airport entrance, I stood behind a family of five engaged in an argument with the security personnel. They held up the line trying to convince a wary guard that their four boarding passes would suffice for them all. Unsurprisingly, their attempt fell flat.

Past the threshold, I proceeded to the baggage drop, where my discussion with a customer representative was interrupted by another traveller, who was evidently hoping to divert the agent’s attention with his apparently pressing matters. He either did not notice my presence or did not care. I am betting on the latter.

When it was time to board the flight, we queued at the gate to be loaded on to buses and driven across the tarmac to the aircraft. Our in-flight seating was clearly designated on our tickets, and the aircraft was guaranteed to remain grounded until all the passengers had boarded. This, of course, did nothing to stop several overeager patrons from jumping before me in line, all in an inexplicable rush.

Finally in my assigned row, carry-on stored and headphones donned, I was somewhat confident that the needless bustle that had marked the past hour had reached its conclusion. Takeoff and lunch service passed without incident, and my thoughts shifted from bewilderment to anticipation of reuniting with family in Tamil Nadu.

Everything changed when the aircraft touched down two-and-a-half hours later. No sooner than the wheels had made contact with the ground, seat belts were unfastened. And when the aircraft rolled to a stop, passengers rushed into the aisles to grab their luggage from the overhead compartments. I offered six inches of personal space to the woman standing in front of me, a decision quickly rebuked by the man behind me in the form of a gentle shove.

I would like to believe this trip was a set of isolated incidents, hardly representative of the way Indian passengers conduct themselves. But I know better. Born and raised in America, I have periodically journeyed to India with my parents ever since my first birthday. Last week I celebrated my nineteenth. And in the years between, I have seen a great deal change. No. 7 Race Course Road has changed hands, the size of the middle class has bulged, and elements of Western culture have intermingled with traditional mores.

But this discourtesy, treating airplanes as one might a commuter bus, has remained painfully constant. And for a foreigner catching for the first time a glimpse of Indians in their natural environment, it will be all the more disquieting.

India has been the beneficiary of generous investments from foreign governments and companies. Prime Minister Narendra Modi acknowledged as much in his speech before a joint session of the U.S. Congress. But try as he might, Mr. Modi cannot single-handedly ensure that every potential investor and ally who visits this beautiful, dynamic country enjoys a positive experience from the start. That responsibility lies in our hands, as considerate travellers and decent countrymen.

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Printable version | Apr 6, 2020 6:56:04 PM |

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