Monday, June 24, 2013

We Are Like This Only

Courtesy -

Apparently Air India is not very popular with Indians. I’ve heard this from the time IT opened up the doors to global travel. This was more than a decade ago when, for most of us, travel luxury was defined by Shatabdi. All of a sudden, the very same fellows who did jugaad for train berths were discussing service in Lufthansa, Singapore Airlines, BA and so on. Some of them spoke as if they had to sit next to the pilot to give him directions. But mention Air India and chi-thu would start. The two big issues are apparently the rude service and ‘aunty type’ hostesses. I’ve never understood this need for apsaras to serve you food just because you happen to be in an aeroplane. And rude service? It is a necessity....almost by popular demand.

If Air India flew directly to my destination, I’d travel by no other carrier. This has got nothing to do with patriotism. First of all, like the fabled Indian hospitality, Air India is so very generous about the luggage limits. And I so love the vibrant orange and yellow decor. Secondly, it just feels like home – as if you are travelling by the Vayu Vajra or something. Arguments and fights break out at the drop of a hat – something my fellow Indians wouldn’t dream of doing in any other airlines. There is an unbridled sense of freedom from civilisation so to speak – I mean if I’d poked someone’s eye or generally yelled my head off as I stood in the Air India queue – it would be deemed as acceptable and normal behaviour. No cops would turn up to escort me out for public disorder for sure.

See this time around, a last minute booking made us pick Air India – they were surprisingly economical while other carriers quoted three times more. Anyway the minute we went to our terminal in Heathrow for the baggage drop – it was like Tirupathi bus stand. My fellow passengers, who are the epitome of suave behaviour if found in the Emirates or British Airways queues, had dropped the polite act. There was elbowing and raised voices. There was no provocation as such - but I guess we bring out the worst in each other. So one dude in tracks and hawai chappals got ‘tired’ of standing in the queue and kind of used the ‘do you know who I am’ tone with the Air India personnel. He complained loudly to no one in particular about how inefficient Indians are ...while scratching his thing. Perhaps he did not notice that the holdup was because of several senior citizens who were being politely guided through the check in process – they had safely packed away their passports in their cabin bags that were securely locked.

Having boarded the aircraft, I was indeed greeted by a matronly set of crew. Once again I felt at home. Let me confess that I freak out a bit in some of our domestic carriers... where the young hostesses look like they are shooting for some 1960s Eastman colour Bollywood movie. Air India was such a relief. Sure the crew reminded me of some of my sterner school teachers – but at least they looked normal.

The fun began after we were seated. One of the hostesses prowled around monitoring the overhead lockers. She stopped near a passenger who had stowed his cabin luggage and said, ‘Sir, can you keep your bag upright? We have a full flight and we need every bit of space.’

‘It is fine like this only,’ the passenger was dismissive.

‘Sir if you can please keep it upright, we can fit in another bag.’

‘Arre no place is there in other lockers?’

‘Please sir.’

The passenger grumbled and set his bag upright. ‘Happy?’ he said in a raised voice.

‘Thank you sir. Please take your seat.’

Why was he so rude, I thought? I know very well that had it been any other airlines, this guy would have conceded to the request with a smile. Anyway, once the hostess moved away, he kept his bag back in the original position.

And then there was a scuffle about seats – this lanky guy wanted an aisle seat and went around soliciting an exchange – the way it happens in trains. He thought it is easier to ask unaccompanied women travellers to exchange seats. He asked a girl and she said sorry, no. He tried to ask her a couple of times and she yelled, 'In what language should I tell you no? NO. NAHIN. Got it? Understood?Or should I start my Sanskrit?'

He moved on to another elderly lady. God knows what he asked her, and what she heard but soon they were fighting about whose grandfather owned Air India.

‘Sir, please take your seat. Once we are airborne, I will see what can be done,’ one of the crew members stepped in swiftly. 'You cannot disturb other passengers.'

‘I can’t sit in the middle seat,’ the guy said.

‘I will see what can be done, but for now, you are blocking movement on the aisle. Please take a seat.’

‘Can you ask that gora sitting in the last row?’

‘Sir I insist. Please take your seat.’

‘You people are supposed to help passengers. USELESS!’ The guy yelled and folded himself into his seat. The elderly lady with whom he argued yelled 'You SENSELESS!' The crew had to shush them down.

And of course, when the plane touched down and was still taxiing on the tarmac, despite all yelled announcements, a hoard of passengers removed their seat belts and opened overhead lockers to bring down their bags. And yes, there was a scuffle to disembark – pushing and shoving – as if the plane would take off without warning.

At the immigration counter at Mumbai I had another funny experience. The officer was a young lady. The Husband and I greeted her as we handed over our passports. She gave us a stony look as she slid the passports over to her desk. Once the stamping was done, she slapped the passports back on to the desk while looking away. Obviously she did not respond to our thank you. But then, behind us there was an American tourist – a young man who was on some kind of an architectural study tour. As I walked away slowly, trying to shove my passport into my purse – I heard the lady say, ‘Hello, how was your journey?’

Surprised, I turned around. Yup. The American was beaming a smile and replying to her. I was out of earshot, but saw that she maintained a cheerful banter as she stamped his passport. No one else reminds me of my brown skin like an Indian does.

When I returned to London, there were at least 700 people ahead of me in the immigration queue at Heathrow. There were the usual oddballs who thought it’s perfectly fine to insert themselves ahead in the queue. No amount of stern warnings by the officers would budge them – they kept mumbling something. Finally when the rest of the crowd got down to name-calling – referring to questionable ancestry of the queue breakers – only then did they slink away.

And to make me feel even more proud of my cultural heritage – two young boys from my country stood in front of me. They entertained themselves by guessing the bust size of all women passing by.

What to do. We are like this only.

© Sumana Khan - 2013


  1. Brilliant! Have seen this happen so often!

  2. Hello Sumana,
    Nice to hear from you after a while. I think we just got political freedom 65 odd years ago but the slavery of these habits still persists and it gets worse every passing day ansutte.

  3. I was laughing out loud at so many of your word pictures, Sumana! Very nicely written!

  4. That was so so damn true, hilarious, pathetic and downright embarrasing all at the same time...but what to do? We are like that only !!!!!

  5. So familiar, but hilariously put. I laughed while reading, though it makes me angry and sad in real life.

  6. My God!! I was clutching my stomach and laughing!! This is soooo true!! I love the descriptions you have given.... you turned the Air India counter into Thirupathi bus stand!! ROFL! Conversation about whose grandfather owned Air India.... HAHAHAH! If I laugh anymore I'd have a stomach-ache. Thank goodness nobody was around in the house else they'd have though I lost my marbles! :P

    The last part made me sober up though. Such a pity isn't it...?

  7. This is hardly Air India's fault, though. I think their service is more or less fine, but they have always been excessively expensive when I wanted to book tickets. Fellow passengers are another story altogether!

    1. Yes...exactly my point...that it is not Air India's problem :) Their service is competent.

  8. It was fun reading this post. I enjoyed it.
    Yes, I agree, Indians are "like that only".

    I can empathise.
    These days there is not much difference between bus travel and air travel.
    In fact, sometimes, bus travel in these air-conditioned and modern Volvo buses can be more pleasant than in some cheap airline with cramped seating and no catering.
    I hear some airlines are going to make air travel more taxing.
    They plan to charge extras for much of what is now free and included in the fare.

    I have had mixed experiences with several airlines.
    I am unable to state that a particular airline is bad or good.
    Different people have different experiences with various airlines.
    Sometimes, one journey is pleasant and another unpleasant, with the same airline.

    I am not choosy as regards the airline when I travel.
    I simply choose the one that gives me the cheapest ticket and a departure schedule that I can live with.

    I enter an aircraft, with no expectations and am never disappointed.
    Air hostesses find me a dream customer.
    I never call them for any service. I never complain of anything.
    In fact I hardly even notice them except when they bring me my food.

    Remember Gopinath's no frills airline? I forget the name.
    I once travelled with that airline too.
    It got me to my destination, as promised cheaply and safely.
    The fare was drastically less than the more fancied Jet Airways.

    Long time no write?
    Do write more often.

  9. Oh yes! We have seen all that happen so many times. I really like the way everyone jump out of their seats as soon as the plane lands. It is as if there is a bomb that will go off the moment the plane stops.
    Loved this post.

  10. LOL. This is hilarious. Well written. I was laughing out loudly.

  11. Jumped over from Shailsnest. Yeah what is it that brings out our worst? I had left a comment at Shailsnest, which you might want to read. Good post will come back for more. I too had written about the attitude of Indians .... well with the same title.
    Do read when you have the time.

  12. Too good!! yes, I can relate to this :)