Short and Snappy dated 1st June 2009
Travelling with our countrymen
The Man from Madras Musings is happiest in Madras that is Chennai. But there comes a time in mid May when his family members find their love for this city wearing thin and conversation during dinner rather markedly takes a turn towards whether it is the heat that is worse or is it the humidity. Then MMM’s good lady, all the while looking directly at MMM, talks of people who have gone off to better climes and then speaks of certain others who do not have the same luck. Adjusting the thermostat on the air-conditioner does not work and even before MMM can utter a few feeble protests, tickets have been booked and we are off. During these journeys MMM’s attitude is more like Peri standing disconsolately outside Paradise as he muses on Madras and what cheers him up more than the attempts of his family members to hurry him on from sport to sport as the quotation goes, is the behaviour of our fellow countrymen when they have to be airborne.
Those who have followed MMM’s writings will remember that he had once waxed eloquent on how some of our brothers behave under the influence of the spirit that cheers once they are in an aircraft. Their motto appears to be that of ‘spiritual’ uplift even as the body is wafted over the skies. So MMM will not repeat himself. And MMM will also pass lightly over the dressing styles of his countrymen. Suffice it to say that Indian men in particular would be better off wearing clothes that hide rather than accentuate their terrible outlines. It is on their behaviour while boarding aircrafts that MMM will now take up his lyre and sing of.
The queue system as far as Indians are concerned is an abstract belief rather like Nirvana which you can only aspire for and never really attain. And so, it is only in India that all airlines have more or less given up on the sequential system of boarding aircrafts. While in other countries they announce the pattern in which they want passengers to step forward and board (families with infants first, elderly needing assistance next etc), in India the general methodology is one of laissez faire with the procedure resembling more of a “Come and Get It”, “Go Forth and Multiply” or worse “Charge!!!!” However, while in foreign capitals and dealing with flights bound for India, airlines, no doubt under pressure from the IATA or some such body still follow the system of sequential boarding, at least on paper.
Unfortunately, these foreign capitals have not learnt from the Indian experience. MMM noticed that the moment boarding was announced for women with children, several of our Indian sorority stepped forward with young thugs who had begun shaving at least five years previously and attempted to pass them off as babes in arms. Then when the sequential boarding by seat numbers began, several passengers just stampeded their way through, even though their seat numbers had not been called.
MMM has since pondered over this strange behaviour. After all, air travel is not akin in any way to travel in unreserved compartments on trains where the fittest get the seats and others need to stand. Then why do Indians behave this way? And then it dawned on MMM. It all has to do with hand baggage which like the queue system is another abstract.
There are norms no doubt in terms of size, numbers and weight on what defines hand baggage. But not to Indians. The average passenger carries at least three pieces and when it comes to size or weight, as far as our compatriots are concerned, those are restrictions only applicable to checked in baggage. MMM is not exaggerating when he states that some of his fellow travellers carried into the aircraft bags that were several sizes larger and heavier than themselves. MMM doubted in some cases whether the passengers were carrying in the bags or whether it was the other way round. And it is the suspense of whether they will be able to stuff in their bags into the small, woefully inadequate and poorly designed overhead compartments or the spaces under the seats that causes our people to stampede the moment an aircraft is ready for boarding.
Once on board, matters do not end with just some damage to a few overhead lockers, a few heads or toes on which bags descend or a few elbows getting grazed as the boxes are lugged across the aisles. Indians do not recognise the seat numbers on their boarding passes and decide where they want to seat. “Sollikalam” (We can always tell them) was the expression MMM heard as a few passengers muscled in on seats meant for others and sat there even as those to whom the seats really belonged just stood watching bemusedly. It was a wonder that people did not fight for window seats. The crew on board spent almost the entire time duration of the flight in reconciling seats with passenger names and meal preferences thanks to this chaos.
Oink! Yes, there is more to being a swine than meets the eye and the latest is this illness. Security has been “beefed up” (thank heavens it is not mad cow disease this year) at all airports and security, immigration and aircraft personnel go around in masks, which the Man from Madras Musings need scarcely remind you was something that only terrorists, dacoits and surgeons did. And so did a few of MMM’s fellow passengers. And these health conscious people gave their masks a hitch each time someone in the aircraft sneezed. And one among us was heavily infected with cold. He sneezed, wheezed, coughed and looked at everyone with rheumy eyes. Those around looked daggers drawn at him and he could not have been a four-legged creature with a twisted tail, a huge snout and folding ears to get a worse reception. As the flight approached Chennai, health declaration forms were handed over and we were asked to fill them in. Do you suffer from cold asked the first question. No was the sufferer’s answer. Do you have cough was the next. No was his answer once again. The third had something to do with breathing problems and the man answered this in the negative as well even as he huffed and puffed in the effort. MMM’s curiosity was aroused. He was sure that there would be a squad of health inspectors in arrival who would whisk the invalid away and probably quarantine the flight as well. MMM’s first thought was of the Chief and of what he would do if this column was not ready on time thanks to the quarantine. But MMM need not have worried.
Even as the pilot announced that we were about to land in Chennai, MMM noticed several of his fellow passengers unfastening their seat belts, extracting the baggage that they had stuffed in and perform quick visits to the toilets no doubt to pilfer all the cosmetics, toilet rolls and even a toilet seat if possible. Some even thought they could queue to the exit (there being no space to stampede) and were quelled in their attempts by a beady-eyed airhostess. Then as the flight landed, MMM noticed the coughing, sneezing and sniffing man fighting his way to exit and charging ahead of the others. MMM thought he was turning himself in and his courage reminded MMM of the Charge of the Light Brigade. But then, this is Chennai. The man led all the rest in the queue at the health inspector’s desk where a heavily masked woman took a cursory look at the form, did not take any note of the man’s febrile condition and simply waved him in. So now if you have an outbreak of swine flu in Chennai, you know how it happened.