My recent return flight from London was divided into two legs, with a changeover at a busy airport in West Asia. The first leg of the flight had the usual international mix of passengers and was uneventful except for nasty clear air turbulence over Germany and the Czech Republic.
CAT is highly unpleasant and visually unnerving as the aircraft yo-yos in bright sunlight at 41,000 feet, with the nearest clouds a vast duvet of white about 10,000 feet below. This phenomenon has been getting worse over the last decade and I’ve read in many places that it’s a direct result of global warming.
No matter, we landed safely at the desert hub. As I approached the departure gate for the second leg I could see from a distance that this was a flight filled with compatriots — desis ignoring zone announcements for boarding and jostling to get ahead. They included some passengers who’d been on the earlier flight with me and were so well-behaved at Heathrow. As always, it was a case of when nearing home begin to do as the Indians do.
The flight was packed. There were several parents with small children. Specifically, a three-year-old boy in the row in front of me was announcing his presence by letting loose ear-piercing shrieks every 45 seconds. I settled down, hoping the kid would calm down. The night flight was scheduled to be four-and-a-half hours long.
About five minutes after I sat down, the small of my back began to feel as though the CAT from the previous flight had started again. The aircraft hadn’t even begun to taxi but a focussed force was rhythmically punching my back. When I got up and looked, I saw a small girl in the seat behind me. A girl with very strong legs; legs of just the correct length that, when fully stretched, they sank into the back of my seat. I sat back down and reminded myself of the many times I had flown long-distance with my own children, first one kid and then two. I couldn’t remember either of them shrieking or feeling free to kick the seat in front.
The trauma continues
We took off and reached cruising height. The boy kept shrieking. The girl kept kicking. I got up and had a polite but firm word with the boy’s mother and grandfather sitting on either side of his seat. ‘What can we do?’ said Nanaji in a checkmate tone, ‘He’s only three!’ ‘You can tell him it’s not okay to scream like this.’ ‘We are. But he doesn’t listen,’ snapped the mortally offended mother.
I sat down, defeated, feeling like an ogre. The girl kicked my back in punishment. The boy let loose another bloodcurdler. His mother might have said what she did to me but her child’s appleness clearly remained unplucked from her eye — she didn’t even glance at the brat. After another 10 minutes of lower-spinal pummelling I got up and engaged the mother of the little girl with the ski-champion pins.
This woman was shepherding her daughter alone. She had the harried look of someone who has been bombed out of their home and is now being accosted by an unsympathetic air-raid warden. ‘I’m really sorry,’ she said in a Punjabomerican accent, ‘but we’ve been travelling from Houston and she’s really tired.’ She’s anything but tired, I wanted to snarl, but refrained.
By now people were looking at me and I had caught the cabin crew’s attention. When one of them came up, I explained the double whammy I was undergoing. She nodded and got her boss who was also very sympathetic ‘Sorry, but nothing we can do sir,’ she said. As I sat down, the girl kicked again. The NRI mum apologised again, her voice close to tears. ‘I’m sorry but she just doesn’t listen to me.’ The boy in front shrieked in approval of his co-perpetrator.
I tried to consider dire counter-measures but came up with nothing. I realised it was actually the parents I wanted to punish. I’ve been on many flights with lots of high-energy children, why is it that only desi children behave this way? Leave aside flights, why do privileged Indian children feel free to behave badly in all public spaces? It’s because their loving parents giggle and look on proudly when they do. Because their parents reward this behaviour without imposing any limits or consequences. Because desi parents often let the child run away with the idea that he or she is the centre of the universe. This leads to young adults who have no civic sense, who have little consideration for others, who always try to jump the queue, who scream when they want and kick how they want.
The writer is a filmmaker and columnist.