NEW DELHI – This month I flew from New Delhi to Bagdogra. It was a clear, beautiful day. The flight was close to capacity, as most domestic flights are these days, after a dramatic decade in which a series of low-cost carriers brought regular air travel within reach of India’s burgeoning middle class. I couldn’t get my preferred window seat and cursed my luck when, midway through the journey, the captain alerted passengers on the left side of the plane to the rare view of the great Himalayan mountains Kangchenjunga and Mount Everest. My fellow passengers graciously invited me to lean across them and take a few pictures.
When we touched the ground, though, everything changed. Land rules came into force again. Seat belts clanked open en masse, and the flight attendants had to warn some passengers against getting up while the plane was still taxiing. Even those still seated were trembling in a state of high alert.
As soon as the plane stopped, the aisle was stormed by those nearest to it. They whisked their bags down from the overhead bins, knocking them against the heads of others trying to squeeze past them. Many passengers got stuck mid-move; the line had faces pointing in all directions. Yet all held fast to their positions, not to be denied their rights or rewards. There, they all stood uncomfortably for three or four minutes, getting ever more impatient. Finally, when the time came to deplane, a war broke out between those in the aisle and those in the seats. What could have been so simple, we pointlessly made so complicated, because we all had to get onto the same bus anyway to get to the terminal.
Why do Indians jostle so compulsively on flights? There’s no denying it. As one irate foreigner wrote a few years ago on an Internet travel forum, “I must sadly report that the average Indian passenger, no matter what his/her background, education, color, creed, etc is the RUDEST AND MOST INCONSIDERATE person flying these days.”
Let’s begin by owning up to being guilty as charged, if for no other reason than we’re all in this together. For once, no class or gender angles apply. So many years into the golden age of Indian aviation, why have we still not been able to agree on the rules of flight etiquette? To ask this simple question is to seek nothing less than a comprehensive view of Indian culture.
Perhaps Indians don’t give way when disembarking on flights not because they’re incorrigibly rude, but precisely because they do give way in so many other social situations. In India, rules exist for how to behave in most social situations, but they invisibly reveal a predilection for hierarchies rather than principles. Younger people are expected give way to elders. Women to men. Subordinates to bosses. Lower castes to higher castes. All these habits are seemingly set in stone; to contest them is to be accused of being disrespectful.
Because so many social rules are completely perverse — Indian functions can be held up for hours just because the “chief guest” hasn’t yet arrived — yet incontestable, Indians can’t help turning situations without such constraints into a reflexive free-for-all … as when flying. When reprimanded by flight staff (“juniors” and “subordinates,” in the Indian world view) they immediately become resentful, because they feel subjected to an imaginary convention when none applies.
Further, all Indians know, both intellectually and viscerally, that they live in the world’s second-most-populous country. They are brought up to realize that the “resources of the commons” — a patch of grass in a park, a seat on a bus or train, even a gap in traffic — are scarce and precious, and if one person won’t claim them out of courtesy or grace, then another one will, and may even be admired for it.
This competitive instinct is so deeply rooted that even in situations when its use is counterproductive, it kicks in. Sure, it’d be much easier if people just deplaned from the first row on back. But someone else is sure to upset this scheme anyway, so why be the sucker who’s left out of both schemes? In deplaning, as in so many other situations, the insights of behavioral economics are more useful than the model of the human being as a rational agent.
Third, in the West, to touch a stranger in public — even accidentally, such as when using public transport — is almost taboo. Therefore, those closest to any exit always get to go first.
Whenever I take the Tube in London or the New York subway, I notice how careful people are to keep a minimum distance even in a crowd. In India, for good or bad, a little physical contact isn’t seen as a bad thing. At fairs, weddings, cricket matches and political rallies, people are more than happy to be jostled by strangers as long they know it’s not being done deliberately or violatively. Queues at post offices or railway booking counters look like all the people in them are stuck together.
Because the taboo of noncontact does not usually apply to shared space in India except when it involves different genders, airplane aisles are also subject to un-self-conscious swarming. People are willing to trade off balancing on one leg and smelling the coconut oil in each other’s hair against the horror of coming in last in the race of disembarkation. The unspoken and tenuous rules of flight etiquette give way to the larger tendencies of the culture.
It’s clear, then, that we’re not going to follow the norms of logic, or of other cultures, on flights anytime soon. Even so, we Indians owe it to ourselves to improve our image in the eyes of the world, especially because — what with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Make in India” and “Growth From Tourism” campaigns — foreign businesses and travelers, including an army of tut-tutting Westerners imposing their suppositions upon our convictions, are going to come pouring into India soon.
So here’s a thought: The next time you’re on a flight, countrymen, and it’s time to deboard, how about following the rule of succession not out of courtesy, but ironically, even subversively? Show that although you’re being discriminated against, you’ll bear it as yet another of life’s never-ending knocks. That although you don’t believe in what you’re being made to do, you’re going ahead anyway in ironic acknowledgement of how globalization and its social, no less than economic, oppressions have finally overrun the soul of India.
Let’s all suffer together in self-restraint and see if we can make a new country!
Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is based in New Delhi.
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5