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Indians who disgrace India
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Indians who disgrace India

From swatting flies to crushing protesters under tanks, the Chinese Government holds a world record in disciplining people. The means and ends are not to everyone's liking but flying back from Bangkok the other day, I could understand why 12 Chinese will never be hauled off an aircraft, manhandled, handcuffed, detained and questioned. I must also add that whatever the provocation, no Western authority would dare to treat Chinese citizens so roughly. 
My ordeal began at Bangkok airport when the man sitting next to me raised his arms over his head and kept them there. A few inches from my nose, his armpit stank. He was a well-dressed passenger booked on the same Thai flight to Kolkata.
It used to be an empty plane but for a few demure chokras going to Bangkok without luggage and returning laden with cheap contraband. Nowadays, it's packed with noisily assertive passengers. With Stinking Armpit mercifully across the aisle, I read of China's latest campaign to stop "uncouth" Chinese going abroad.
According to China Daily, they spit, clear their throats loudly, shout into mobile phones and take off their shoes in planes. Since such "behaviour is not compatible with the nation's economic strength and growing international status," the Communist Party's Spiritual Civilisation Steering Committee will re-educate tourists.
I wish Indians were as moved by pride or sensitivity. This has nothing to do with ethnic profiling or terrorist alarms. But, paradoxically, one experiences India at its worst on flights abroad. The logical corollary to Malcolm Muggeridge's claim that the only Englishmen left in the world are Indians is that the only Indians lurk in a time warp in Silicon Valley or Southall. The 12 Mumbai textile traders were not Non-Resident Indians. But whether NRIs, People of Indian Origin, plain desis, manual workers and professionals, all share common traits that are as offensive as anything China Daily complains of.
It's not only a cattle class problem. Since Air India automatically upgrades Government officials, politicians and anyone with clout, the same culture dominates business and first class cabins.
Indians used to be diffident abroad, especially in the West, when we feared snubs. Khushwant Singh's advice when I was taking up a posting in London soon after Enoch Powell's outburst in the late sixties was to "haw-haw it out" at Heathrow. Just back from England then, Neena Vyas, daughter of the veteran editor Shyam Lal and herself a journalist, said she had avoided unpleasantness only by claiming to work for the "Indian embassy." Visiting America's Deep South a decade earlier, Mohie Das, highly Anglicised first Indian head of Mackinnon Mackenzie, carried a turban to clamp on his head when entering restaurants. Maharajahs escaped discrimination.
If colour prejudice forced Indians to exercise restraint, confidence has opened the floodgates of boisterousness. Paul Theroux says anyone who sits next to an Indian on a plane can vouch for national loquacity. Film star Amisha Patel's reported tantrum at Mumbai airport recalled Indian's counter at Changi when the airline still connected Singapore and Kolkata. Passengers who queued quietly for Singapore Airlines bunched round Indian's desk, waving tickets and passports, pushing and shoving. An extension of home, the airline allowed Indians to be Indian.
Freed from inhibition, our Johnny-know-alls go wild on the perks of flying. They treat the crew as personal servants, peremptorily demand drinks before take-off, complain about the food, call loudly for magazines, headsets and blankets, ignore Fasten Seat-belt signs, chatter on their mobiles, constantly open overhead lockers, and parade the aisles forcing meal trolleys to retreat. Bathrooms are a filthy mess in their wake. Only the scowling surliness of Aeroflot's male stewards keep them silent in their seats.
Such is the level of English of many flyers that I heard a Royal Brunei hostess warn another, "They don't understand 'vegetarian'. You must say 'aloo-gobi'!" I have filled in landing cards for countless passengers who produce their passports when asked for name and address, but never for an unlettered qualified surgeon, as Tapan Raychowdhury, the Oxford historian, had to do. Though with a surgery degree from some Uttar Pradesh university, the woman who sought his help called the entire British Isles - including Dublin where she was joining her doctor husband - "London."
Airlines understand their traffic. Emirates service improves miraculously after Dubai. For Lufthansa, it's Frankfurt. Ask for a martini on an eastern Air India flight and the steward will explain politely that cocktails are served only on Western routes. It's raw spirits in the East. A steward on Indian's early morning Bangkok-Kolkata flight used to walk down the aisle with an open bottle of Black Label, pouring out generous libations. Passengers complained if he didn't.
Drink can be demeaning. Though the Qantas hostess snapped that the bar was closed for landing, a Mumbai- Cairns passenger kept pleading for free champagne because he had never before been upgraded. London is the worst route. North Indian field hands who have acquired an insatiable appetite for whisky and a raucous bonhomie when reborn as British factory workers invite the superciliousness of British Airways crews with little other experience of Indians. A Britindian hostess stopped at a row of noisy drinkers once to say in heavily accented Hindi that they made her feel ashamed of being Indian.
Despite personal crudities, Chinese flyers are less demanding. Not feeling quite as deprived at home, they don't throw their weight about abroad. Many Westerners claim that China is a more serious nation, less given to distractions. If Beijing would not take what happened in Amsterdam lying down, it would also ensure that its citizens do not invite insult.
China's second cultural revolution will last till the end of 2008 when it will host the Summer Olympics. According to official statistics, Chinese tourists last year made 31 million foreign and 1.2 billion domestic trips. They are expected to make 100 million overseas trips by 2020. 
Indians might make even more. I wish instead of exhorting us to welcome foreigners as honoured guests, Jawaharlal Nehru had insisted on a compulsory crash course in manners (like P Forms, income tax clearance and other forgotten nightmares) before going abroad. Realising cultural deficiencies, he laid down deportment rules for official entertainment and civil service trainees; let his successors start with textile delegations from Mumbai. My having to suffer Stinking Armpit doesn't matter. The national image does.

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