Sunday, September 9, 2012

A flight from Chennai

Last July I flew from Sacramento to Long Beach, California to visit my brother before catching a flight  to Delhi.  After a one-hour ride, we landed, taxied to the terminal, and the seat belt sign switched off.  A half dozen passengers leisurely stood to retrieve their bags from overhead while the rest of us remained seated, waiting for the door to open. When it did, we exited by rows. I grabbed my things when my turn came and followed the folks ahead of me to the terminal. All very normal; just another summer day in California.

Last week, I wrapped up a workshop in Chennai and flew home to Pune. After a little over an hour flight, the plane landed, taxied to the terminal, stopped, and before the seat belt sign switched off, fifteen of the passengers where on their feet opening the luggage bins.  Moments later, the aisle was packed, shoulder to shoulder, with passengers surging forward, anxiously awaiting the opening of the plane’s door.

I was in a middle seat so I simply waited; the aisle was full but I could feel the fellow by the window next to me getting antsy.  The door was still closed yet he could hardly contain himself and began to crawl over me to force his way into the crowd.  I blocked him with my arm and simply said with a smile, “Let’s all wait for our turn. OK?”  He sheepishly sat back down.  As the seats ahead emptied, we were able to stand and go.  My seatmate, right behind me, hurried to the baggage carousel, there to await the eventual arrival of his luggage.   

I’ve seen this scene played out again and again and never stop wondering, “Why?”  Where does the compulsion to hurry and push from one spot to the next come from, especially when one must simply wait some more at the next place.  There is a rush to get off the plane only to stand and wait for a bus to the terminal, jostling to get on the bus and then a rush to the baggage claim to wait some more.  I could understand if one had a need to catch a connecting flight, maybe meet someone waiting outside or if by pushing ahead, something useful is accomplished, but ninety nine times out a hundred, there is no good reason.  It’s just a habit and makes no sense to me.

I was at the Newark airport a few years ago awaiting a flight to Delhi.  Arriving early, I had already watched flights leave for Copenhagen, Frankfurt and Istanbul.  As these flights were called, passengers assembled and boarded in an orderly fashion.  Before my flight, airport personnel came with stanchions and cordoning for crowd management, knowing Indians’ tendency to push to the front and ignore boarding instructions.

I’ve pondered over this for years because it relates to driving, behavior in queues, getting on and off the Metro or being anywhere groups gather.  Indians want to get ahead and maybe this accounts for their success when abroad. They are willing to work very hard and are highly intelligent, but they also seem, to my eye, stressed and anxious.  Maybe it's because they are forced to wait for so many things in life--government services, traffic, the repairman who always comes late, the fellow who says he will "definitely be there" but never is. Of course, maybe none of this is true and I'm just seeing things through my laid-back Californian eyes.  

I suspect Indians have learned that waiting one’s turn is not a good strategy when resources are tight and when others are willing to push you aside to get their share (and yours) first.   With so many, many people, standing politely aside simply isn’t a reasonable option. “Yield” signs on the highways don’t exist; they are a foreign concept.  I’ve asked my Indian friends to explain this to me but have yet to hear a satisfying answer. They just laugh and maybe that’s the best approach.