The Identity Politics of International Travel.

I am back in Cambridge (Massachusetts, not England, just like the narrator in Upamanyu Chatterjee’s “English August”) for a week. It feels about the same as when I left the place four months ago to go to India, but I had an intense experience of culture shock in the London airport. All those gleaming aisles and fancy stores and nicely laid out boards indicating where to go to get food or catch your flight — it seemed too ordered, too rational to me. Everything was there for a purpose, there was a higher power that had made a plan for our stay in Heathrow and we humans either had to conform to that higher power or suffer in silence. Nothing in India is ever organized in such a Cartesian grid, where everything has a place (or to be more precise, where nothing is out of place). Its in London that I realized that I have gotten used to the organic structure of Bangalore in the last four months. Was it Galbraith who said that its a functioning anarchy? I think that’s what it might appear to a Westerner, but I think its because they are so used to their order being transparent. I think we like our order to be a hidden, so that it never becomes a commandment, never a dictatorship of the intellect. Our order (or orders, as in being told what to do or not to do) is open ended, capable of revision and in the worst case scenario, retractible. That may seem like anarchy, but I think it reflects the open-endedness of life.

Anyway, airports always strike me as interesting places to study humans. Even airplanes. I was sitting next to an old Kannadiga couple who were leaving India for the first time. They did not know Hindi or Tamil, let alone English, so I had a hard time being their interpreter. Fortunately, the gentleman in the row behind us stepped in and helped them out as much as he could. Meanwhile, the Indian stewardess hired by British Airways to liason with clients like my rowmates was miffed that they didnt speak Hindi or English. She spent the flight making sure that she was not in any way from the same kind of people as those two Kannadiga’s. Meanwhile, the guy behind me increased his solicitations as the flight went along, hoping that his goodwill will mollify the BA goddesses.

Its strange that the same helplessness made one person angry and the other person helpful. Meanwhile all the white BA stewardesses were chatting away with the few white passengers. When I we disembarked, I noticed that while the Anglo’s got nice “Good Bye Sir’s”, the Indian’s only merited nods. I am not saying that the BA staff were racist (overtly anyway). I think that international travel amplifies all similarities as well as the distinctions. Since its the primary means by which countries get foreigners these days, its no surprise that the gatekeeping function of airports seeps into the psychology of the airline staff. 

Anyway, BA should hire a Kannada speaking stewardess for the Bangalore-London sector.

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