Guest post: Diary of a returning desi: United we stand

My husband recently went on a 2-week trip to India for his high school (Shrine Velankanni in Chennai) and college (IT – BHU) reunion.  Yes, this year we did the separate India-trip thing – and for both of us, the experience was different, and in some ways richer.  Aside from envy due to all the amazing food he got in Benaras, I was also amazed at his return trip to Chennai thru Delhi.  This post is his story, in his own words!  Mixed emotions! We both saw a very different India this time.  The potential, and the capabilities of Indians are amazing! Here’s the story in his own words.  Enjoy!

Diary of a returning desi: United we stand

I woke up with a start and realized that there was a lot of yelling going on at the back of the airplane. A couple of rows of passengers were yelling at the stewardess and she was yelling back – good customer service – while a steward was standing by as an onlooker, letting the lady take the heat! The passengers were claiming the airline and staff were all cheats – could it have been some problem with some food that was served? Who knows.

I was traveling back from Varanasi to Chennai via New Delhi. Someone had warned me not to travel through Delhi due to fog. But, when I made my reservation, the only options were to fly through Delhi. As we left Varanasi, we were told that all flights out of Delhi had been delayed and ours would leave three hours later. When we landed, it was going to be four and a half hours late!

This was evening time – it was dark when we landed in Delhi. Our flight was going to leave at 11:30pm. It would bring me into Chennai at 2:10am – not exactly what I wanted to do, but, at least I would be reaching home that day and not spend an entire next day traveling. So, I boarded the flight at around 10:45pm and tired as I was, fell asleep promptly.

When I woke up with a start, I checked the time – it was 1:10am. We had been in the air for an hour and forty minutes. We should be landing in Chennai in another hour. I decided that was enough time to take another quick nap and closed my eyes. That was when the cell phone belonging to the lady in the row ahead of me, rang. I was amazed that cell phones worked in India at 35000 feet!

She picked up the phone and started telling the person on the other end, “They are trying to find a vehicle that can come and push our aircraft back to the hangar!”. What the h….! Now, I really woke up. Now, the yelling really made sense – the passengers were upset since our aircraft had been standing on the tarmac for an hour and forty minutes! I did a quick thank you to the Man upstairs to have knocked me out through this initial pandemonium. There was no going back to sleep now – I was in the middle of whatever was happening and the realization that I will not be making it to Chennai was starting to sink in.

I had come from the US on a ten day visit. Five of those days were being spent on the trip to Varanasi. Now, I was on the verge of losing one more day to travel – not good! I heard the lady continue to describe the situation – “We were next to leave, two minutes behind the airplane in front of us when suddenly the fog thickened and visibility was down to ten feet and it has stayed that way!”

So, how did the airlines cheat? They ordered the fog to keep the passengers in the plane? Not letting the passengers enjoy their quarantine on the tarmac? I decided to pay more attention to the yelling. Didn’t have to – one of the passengers stood up and started announcing loudly – “People, we need your help. You should not deplane when they ask you to. Unless the airline can clearly tell us how they are going to get us to Chennai, no one should deplane. If you deplane, they will not do anything for us. A refund will not buy our one-way ticket to Chennai – the price difference is too much. This airline does not take care of their passengers. We need to stand united and refuse to deplane until alternate arrangements are made. We need your cooperation!”

There it was – the airline would cheat us out of our travel, would not help their customers. Didn’t speak well to their customer service, when I heard someone say “I knew I should not fly this airline – they never care about their customers.” to which someone else said “But, their fares are the only ones I could afford. This is what happens when you travel on budget airlines. Everything’s fine until there is a problem. They don’t have extra aircraft.”

The family across the aisle were starting to talk about their problem. “Ma, do you think we will make it in time for the wedding?”

“Of course dear! Don’t worry, our wedding plans will not be impacted.”

“But, Ma, I am scared. What if we are stuck in Delhi? Is this a bad omen?”

“Nonsense! I am telling you, everything will be fine!”

“Somebody please call NDTV. We need to put pressure on this airline, otherwise, they will leave us hanging.” Magically, someone had the phone number for NDTV and I could hear what he was saying. “We passengers are holding the plane hostage until the airline makes alternate arrangements to reach Chennai.” Great! I was now part of a gang that was holding an airplane hostage!

I only had four days left before I left for the US. There was no way I was going to participate in this madness. I needed to deplane as soon as possible and get rebooked on one of the other airlines for the first flight out of Delhi! Also, when has there been a situation where Indians have held together to fight for a cause publicly, like this, for me to even expect a resolution? I decided that I could not afford to take a chance. First opportunity to deplane, I am out of here!

The two vocal gentlemen from the back of the plane walked up and down and canvassed with the other passengers requesting their cooperation for the stand down with the airline. They were definitely not politicians and their anger and frustration was genuine. Could this really be happening? Will this junta actually respond to these requests? Can we stay unified and take on the airline? Naaaa!

I looked at the watch – it was 2:00am! The “follow me” vehicle had come and our aircraft was headed back to the hangar. The stewardess announced our arrival at the gate and requested everyone to get their luggage and deplane. Per plan, I stood up to get my luggage from the overhead compartments. That’s when the two gentlemen took stand at the two exits and requested everyone to sit down. They pleaded everyone to stay put and not deplane. I decided, what the h…, let’s see what happens and sat down.

The lady in the row in front of me said, “The airline is not going to do anything. This is just a waste of time. We should get down and go. Also, I don’t know why they are yelling at the air-hostess – it’s not her fault!” I could hear the murmurs of discontent across the entire airplane. The weak chain was going to break any moment now and the mass exodus from the plane was going to start. One guy in an exit row loudly said “All they have to tell us is our alternate plans. Everyone, please stay seated and don’t leave.” and he repeated this every three minutes like a parrot! He made it sound like a simple problem to solve!

Surprisingly, no one stood up! No one went for their luggage! Everyone remained seated! The two gentlemen got encouraged and they demanded that the manager on the ground come to airplane to negotiate. Fifteen minutes later, a manager came to the front of the airplane. The decibel level sky-rocketed! Someone was video-taping the session for “The art of yelling simultaneously!”

After much yelling and screaming, we were informed that the manager was going back to the counter to figure out what he can do. He came back fifteen minutes later and announced that they were going to cancel the existing 6:45am flight and that they had decided to make our plane the 6:45am flight. We needed to deplane to go get our new boarding passes.

While this new announcement encouraged people, the two gentlemen said that no one was going to deplane and that we would send five people back with the manager. Once they came back with their boarding passes as proof, then the rest of us would deplane. These were new levels of “holding ground” that I was witnessing. My colleague, who was a couple of rows ahead of me, texted his son in Chennai at 2:47am that we were stuck on the airplane and that we should be on NDTV news.

Some more yelling regarding “trust” and “cheating” and “lack of customer interests” etc. went on. Ultimately, it was decided that the request was not practical and all passengers were requested to deplane. We all picked up our bags and went to the area around the counter. Finally, around 4am, the flight was rebooked and we were informed that our boarding passes were getting ready. It was at this time that my colleague’s son woke up in Chennai. We got a text back from him stating that we were “Breaking News” on NDTV!

The saga ended when we all received our new boarding passes at around 4:30am. Boarding was at 5:45am. So, some of us decided to get something to eat and drink. Other than my quick nap, we had been awake through the night!

As we were walking to the restaurant, I heard one person telling someone how they stood for their rights and made the airline bend to their tune on what they wanted them to do. Another person was speaking on the phone and letting his contact, who was waiting at the airport in Chennai know that it was due to their tireless efforts that the airline’s natural tendency was overcome! While there were only two gentlemen who held back everyone, we now had a plane full of heroes who had mutinied! Everyone was singing their tune of victory!

Would this have happened 20 years ago, when I was still living in India? Would there have been a plane full of heroes? Would there have been the unity, even if forced, that was demonstrated that day? Would there have been the willingness on the part of the airline to rise up to the level of customer service being demanded? I felt like I had witnessed history that day – a new India in the making, people standing up for their rights, for what should have been done as normal course. And, of course, I felt ashamed that I was not willing to believe, willing to participate and was part of the problem!

I heard the story being told one last time to the couple sitting in the first two seats. They were booked on the 6:45am flight that got cancelled, but had not received the news regarding the cancellation and hence had come for their flight. Since our flight was not full, ten or so such passengers made it on our flight. Ultimately, there were passengers who got wronged – all the ones who were scheduled to travel on the 6:45am flight that got cancelled – but, as long as it wasn’t us and we knew we were getting to Chennai, it didn’t seem that anyone cared!!

My thoughts:

To my husband’s surprise at this united stand, I want to gently remind him that yes, we have done this before – remember Aug 15, 1947?

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Naan yaar Naan yaar Naan yaar….(aka Who am I?)

This post is dedicated to all the souls who’ve lost their identities.  Who don’t know who they are or where they belong.

I am lost – on many levels.  Let’s start with my name.  My family calls me Latha.  My in-laws and husband’s family calls me Srilatha.  Several of my friends call me Sri.  My kids call me Satan, Damien (after the evil character in the Omen series – my daughter has this for me on her cell), maa (mostly by my son), amma, mom, dawg (this from my daughter when she really wants something and wants me to think she thinks I’m cool).

My husband calls me….nothing!  for some strange reason, he doesn’t call me by name (nor I him).  I don’t know what our problem is.  We’ve lived together for 20 years not calling each other by name.  I am not holding my breath it’ll happen anytime soon.   (yes I cannot get through an entry without bringing up something about you!)

It’s strange because before we were married, he used to call me by my initials (JS) and I by his name.

With the Americans, it’s a different story.   You’d think Srilatha is a fairly easy name.  Wrong.  I was called sri-laah-thaa or worse, Sri-lay-tha – by pretty much everyone here for so long that I started telling everyone to call me “Sri”.  Fair enough.   That seemed to fix the problem.

I had a client who always called me SriLanka – like the country. Didn’t blink, pause or hesitate.  Confidently called me that every time we spoke on the phone.  I never had the chance to correct her because a call from her always meant some fire had to be put out.  And I wasn’t going to be picky about how she said my name.   

If that sums up all the names I was called verbally, the written form of my name has seen even more mutilations.

 Frilatha (yeah right), Sriladhy (hey who’re you calling lady?), and the ever-popular Srilaytha to name a few. 

As if all this is not enough, I recently got an American Express card from Costco which was all fancy and everything.  But every time I use it, I get asked for my id.  Why? Because it has a picture of a white woman on it.  Yes.  A white woman.  So everywhere I go, I give the card – they look at it, do a double-take, look at me and ask to see an id.  It was amusing the first 2 times.  Now I tell them when I hand them the card  – “I know – that nice looking lady on the card is not me – and I’m not an identify thief, I didn’t steal her card.  It’s a mistake by Costco – here’s my driver’s license”.

But wait…this post is not just about my name.  although I could go on about it.  It’s also about my ‘cultural’ identity.   I don’t know if all NRIs feel this way – like they belong nowhere and everywhere at the same time. 

To my American friends, I am Indian.  How much ever I assimilate, I have too much Indian in me to be an American.  My kids,  yes.   They have no trace of an accent,  no tell-tale signs. 

To the desis on the other hand, I am too westernized – I am not one of them. 

And truthfully, I don’t know if I really fit in with the Indians back home anymore.  I, with the rest of the desi diaspora, am forever locked into that frozen state of desihood we were in whenever we left home to make this country our home.  My Indian values have not changed for the most part – but I’ve adopted some American values.  India as I knew her 20 years ago, doesn’t exist anymore.  India has moved on, whereas I have not. 

And then I have these moments when my brain plays tricks on me – and I’ve noticed other people going through this phenemenon too.   Once, I was sitting in a van with my friend Suneeta, outside an Indian restaurant, waiting for my husband to come back from the Indian store, and we were just people-watching.  We saw a number of Americans entering the restaurant and I said “ Look at all the foreigners going into that restaurant”.  It wasn’t until my friend started to crack up that I realized what I’d said.  For one brief moment, I was in India while in America.  It was the weirdest feeling!

A frequent conversation that I have with a friend is about where do we really fit in anymore.    Or do we fit in anywhere? Sometimes it makes me sad, but most days I think I’m okay with not knowing.  Or knowing I belong to a new breed – a curious mix of frozen-desi and 1st generation immigrant.   And then there are days I really crave the sights, the sounds and the bustle of Madras.  All it takes is the smell of jasmine, an old song, or an old movie.  Days when I really question our decision to live here and raise our children here.

I am curious to know what people back home feel.  Do folks who have relatives abroad feel differently from those who don’t?  I am also curious to know how NRIs who returned back home feel. 

To finish this post off, here’s an old song from the movie “Kudiyiruntha Kovil” that more or less aptly describes how I feel – I warned you that I’m a big fan of MGR.   And yes, the crazy MGR is the one I feel like most days.  I bet I can find a song for every emotion/topic in an old Tamil movie.

In spite of the over the top acting by MGR, I love this movie and all the songs.  This is also a favorite of my son, 16, born and brought up in the US.  He calls it the ‘twin thief’ movie.  His other all-time fav Indian movie is Sholay. My daughter’s being “kannathil muthamittal” and “Alai Paayuthe”.   They both love dosai, all the street/chaat food, idli, pongal, would kill for puliyotharai and thayir saadam and mango pickle.  I wonder if they’re confused as I am. Happy for the most part, but confused!