I’ve never known a people to value freedom more than the Indians. Freedom from queues, freedom from seat belts, freedom from placing their seat backs and tray tables into the full upright position, freedom from listening to any warning about remaining in the seat during takeoff and landing, about not using the toilet at a certain time, freedom from obeying any luggage restrictions or warnings about using mobile phones.

Yeah, the mobile phones: I dreamt of a new kind of warning. Instead of the clearly too subtle, “using mobile phones may interfere with the plane’s equipment,” I heard the PA system issue the unequivocal notice: “If you use your mobile phone to make that one last call there’s a high chance that it’ll scramble the pilot’s controls and we’ll all plummet into the ground and die a horrible burning death and it will be all your fault.” Personally, I’m yet to be convinced of precisely what mobile phones actually do to the plane’s controls but as far as I’m concerned:

1) The warning exists.2) Someone has seen fit to bring it into existence. 3) These people clearly have a reason to do so and…4) It doesn’t hurt to obey it.

But this is the difference between me and the average Indian. It seems to genuinely hurt them to obey the rules, as if their liberty is being trampled on from a great height. It hurts to obey the rules which in all likelihood are there to make everyone’s life easier . These Indians just can’t seem to help themselves.

Of course I’ve known about all this for a long time now, but it hit me like an epiphany on an early morning flight from Bangalore to Delhi. Maybe it was the lack of sleep and the very early start which reduced my tolerance, but every single person around me seemed to be pathologically incapable of doing what they were told.

So it started in the departure lounge. Highly educated, urbane, technologically adept young men sporting mobile phone headsets and carrying laptops, elegant and no doubt morally upright women, mothers, fathers, children, brothers, wives, sons, sisters, aunts and uncles, human beings – all transforming into desperados before my eyes, desperate to get that one inch closer to the departure gate when the flight was announced, bringing out their well trained and sharpened elbows to wedge into that mythical spot just ahead, some vague and opaque and presumably ancient fear blossoming in their collective minds that told them against all reason and logic that maybe if they don’t get on the plane RIGHT NOW, even though it has only just been announced for boarding and isn’t going anywhere for at least another forty-five minutes, then the plane might leave them behind and they will be stranded. Once the initial scramble to get to the front dies down and some sort of line system forms, the next stage of pushing begins, the war of attrition, where shuffled little steps and slow shoulder and elbow work are employed to guarantee that at least no one gets past you. It’s a full-time job. Maybe they should make it a national sport.

Once on board, the crew stresses repeatedly that passengers should sit in the seats assigned to them. There’ s a kind of forlorn look on their faces now. It seems clear that no one, and I mean no one, should tell these people where they ought to sit. I couldn’t help laughing when two men, doctor types, who were probably used to the ‘best’, demanded to speak to the manager when they didn’t like their seats.

And then there’s the luggage. Bags the size of baby elephants are carried on as hand luggage. I cry inside… how come I had to check in my bag when someone with a bag twice the size breezes by? What happened to the rules? Why didn’t the people at the counter stop them? Because they are in on it too, that’s why. I tell myself that if no one obeys the rules then everything is possible and all hell will break loose. Doesn’t anyone care about the rules!? People hold their bags in their laps when they should go above. Everyone pulls out their mobiles and starts to talk on them. We are taking off and someone casually unbuckles to go to the toilet. I tell myself that maybe it’s because they’re not used to it. In a bus or a train no one has this many rules. (They do in England – buses now have seatbelts you are legally obliged to wear. Can you imagine? Be warned.) People sleep on the floor in the middle of the aisle here. No one is going to tell anyone what to do.

The coup de grace comes on landing. As soon as the plane touches down there is the sychronised click of one hundred seat belts being removed. I’m genuinely surprised it took that long. But listen people. Where do you think a seatbelt is more likely to help you? When the plane is in the air, or when it’s careening along the runway at who knows what speed and has yet to come to a halt? Think about it.

When there’s some slight change in the engine noise which maybe signifies some kind of impending halt, a man jumps up from his seat to open the overhead locker and grab his bag. It will still be five minutes before he can go anywhere. I watch him in slow motion. For some reason, his features are now permanently etched in my mind, his bouffant hair and slick moustache, his cheap shirt that was maybe very expensive. What I remember most is the look in his eyes. He furtively glanced around to check the coast was clear. Then suddenly, determined… he was going to do it, he was clear in his mind, he knew why he had stood up. He was going to be the first on the plane to retrieve his luggage! He had succeeded! VICTORY! And as soon as this look came about his face (and everyone else had time to register it) almost every other passenger on the plane jumped up too, and scrambled for their luggage, and the whole place fell apart. On any other country’s airline there would be one or two people trying this on (probably Indians) and they would be shot down by the stewards and every other passenger (probably English) would smile a quiet and smug smile and nod their heads gently in approval… “quite right”. But here the stewards do nothing. What can they do in the face of the mob and their demand for complete freedom? I slap my forehead in astonishment. It’ s like there’ s some in-built, hardwired and highly refined sense of absolute and pointless disobedience in every Indian’s brain. Yes, no people love freedom more than the Indians.

Illustration: Venki

Motherland is a bi-monthly magazine with a focus on contemporary and emerging Indian cultures.

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