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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Vulgarians

India’s Emergent Lowbrow Culture

After a cool and relaxing week in Goa, I flew back to Delhi on a Spicejet flight. It was then that the new reality slapped me in the face. My experience on the plane made me turn monkish, in the hope I would avoid hell when the time comes for me hand in my dinner pail, kick the bucket, breathe my last, expire, die. The two-hour journey tested me so much that I forgot about my fear of flying. Even though we had a bumpy flight, my white knuckles were overshadowed by the sheer frustration I felt at the uncouth behavior of some fellow passengers.

I realized that, just in case there is heaven and hell, I certainly don’t want to go to Satan’s estate in the event I find all the crude people there that were on the flight. To that end, I have sworn to exercise more and do good turns, even if I have to drag old ladies across the street; or eat sickly sweet offerings from temples or face Mecca and bow several times a day or go to confession in a Catholic church. Heck, I am even prepared to eat health food.

Coming back to the flight, I was granted my request for an aisle seat by a pleasant staffer at the check-in counter. Not just that, I was pleased as punch to note that the middle and window seats remained empty as the doors closed. This was truly fortuitous because these low-cost airlines pack people in like sardines. I thought I would have a pleasant, undisturbed flight. I pulled up the hand rests and prepared to stretch my legs across the two empty seats once the seat belt sign was switched off.

No sooner than the doors closed, the guy in the row behind me loomed over me, gesturing at the window seat in my row. Politely, I got up to let him through, figuring I would still have an empty seat in between. He had four seats…three where his wife and two sons sat and him across the aisle. When I got up, he hurriedly blocked me and got his two sons to move into the two seats next to me while he moved across the aisle to sit with his wife.

Stunned by this display of uncouth behavior, I told him what he did was unfair. He was not conversant with English and his breath was foul so I let it go and buried myself in my book. As the plane took off and when the seat belt sign was switched off, an obese guy in the seat in front of me pushed his seat back as far as it would go, leaving no room for my legs and my book. I asked him to straighten his seat and he launched into the air equivalent of road rage. “You don’t own the airline,” he told me in his “convent” English. “If you have a problem, move to another seat. Or fly another airline.”

Taken aback by the man’s rude outburst, I kept silent and wondered at the hectoring culture of this new and crude India. He was fat and out of shape…clearly a crass Delhiwallah with black money, the type that resident Goans abhor. I asked the steward to move me to another seat. For the record, I have been a cheerleader for this upwardly mobile, emergent middle class that poses a challenge to the privilegentsia: the clutch of academics, bureaucrats and sundry others who feed off the trough of the state.

The privilegentsia proved a thorn in the side of the international community; their pretentious outlook proved offensive to many in the West and left India bereft of friends in the liberal world. But the emergent culture of 21st century India that seeks to replace the elitist lot can only be called vulgarian. Much of it is reflected in the popular culture: on television and in Bollywood films; also in the ostentatious celebration of age-old rituals like Diwali and Holi and in the re-awakening of misogynist festivals like Karva Chauth and criminal practices such as dowry.

Talk about the devil and the deep blue sea!

copyright rajiv desai 2008