The Two Faces of an Indian Tourist


The Two Faces of an Indian Tourist

Illustration: Cleon Dsouza / Arré

In 2003, a not-quite-a-stunner named Jassi sent the country into a tizzy when she ditched her trademark braces, oversized glasses, and salwar-suit in Sony’s widely popular Jassi Jaisi Koi Nahin. Within minutes, the “ugly duckling” Jasmeet Walia, a mere secretary, transformed into a pretty model, whose makeover became the talk of the town.

That grand makeover, however, cannot hold a candle to the one that Indian tourists undergo when “going to the foreign”. The metamorphosis of a perennially loud, judgmental, scene-creating Indian tourist into a calm, rule-abiding ideal traveller when abroad would boggle the mind of Franz Kafka’s Gregor Samsa. And that dude went from being man to cockroach in one night.

I am at the crowded Istanbul airport, spellbound, after a seven-hour flight from Mumbai. Around me, are a bevy of girls in crop-tops, their flat stomachs adorned with piercings, and more than a hint of cleavage. Also around me is a large Indian family, complete with middle-aged uncles, aunties, nieces, and nephews. I stand still, preparing for the raised eyebrows and hushed whispers at the amount of skin these girls have dared to show. In the past, I’ve witnessed insinuations about the lack of their sanskaar and the fault in their parvarish.

To my shock, my compatriots remain unperturbed. There is no staring, no chants to Bhagwan, no Alok Nath-ness. In that moment, their civilised behaviour came as a slap harder than the time Abhijeet Sawant won over Amit Sana in Season 1 of Indian Idol (#NeverForget).

The Great Indian Tourist Family remains suspiciously well-behaved during the flight as well. Back home, we’ll utilise our time on the flight to hit staffers with chappals for not being allowed to fly business-class, or treat the air-hostess like our designated serfs by ordering them around, or being thunderously noisy. Left to us, we’d leap off the plane before touchdown if we could.

But, a few hours later, I am proven wrong once again. The very family who should have been poster boys for “loud decibels or nothing” are now quieter than a family of mice. The folks who were loudly squabbling about family matters a while ago, have magically transformed into sophisticated, polite people muttering a volley of “thank yous” while being served bread rolls and chocolates. The decorum is admirable — if a little duplicitous.

I’ve tried hard to answer this question, but where is this sophisticated being on domestic travel routes? Why are we loud, restless, hyper, and obnoxious in India, but suddenly acquire etiquette at an international destination? How does our decibel level change so swiftly? How do we begin to follow the rules? How do we turn into Adarsh Indians Abroad? Is there something in the air or the water supply?

But most importantly, where is this person when he is in India?

Maybe there is something in the Broken Windows Theory posited by James O. Wilson and George Kelling in 1982. The duo used broken windows as a metaphor to analyse human impulse. For instance, if someone is on a street whose buildings have shattered and broken windows, they would come to the conclusion that the street was in a state of disarray and neglect, and that one was least likely to be punished for misdemeanours there. That assumption would then lead to behaviour that would reinforce their hypothesis, that could range from destroying the buildings or spitting on the street.

It’s a version of the “chalta hai” attitude that we unfailingly bring to the table. In India, we think nothing of misbehaving in the streets or scribbling the names of our lovers on heritage monuments — after all, we see it all around us and we are also aware that we will get away with it. There is no such leeway when we are in a country not our own. Indians reject their inherent Indianness, and voluntarily abide by the rules, keep public spaces clean, because everyone around us is doing so. Our subconscious is convinced that someone cares about the country, and by extension we need to as well.

I encountered the Adarsh Indian Abroad on our last dinner in Rome too. There was a unanimous wish was to eat at an Indian restaurant in the neighbourhood. I hesitated, for I knew that the greatest trigger for an Indian’s misconduct rating to go through the roof was during dinner at a restaurant. Everywhere in India, I continue to observe animated Indian families at their loudest, without a care for the other guests, throwing in some dramatic hand gestures, and an extended demand for discounts on the final bill. At times, I’ve been a part of that family.

But our dinner on foreign soil, in a foreign restaurant designed to make us homesick, was different. Indian families quietly enjoyed overpriced plates of dal, rice, and chicken curry without complaint. Where was that excited uncle who would roar with laughter at a silly, misogynistic joke that someone told him? Why was there no ongoing debate, with someone standing up just to make a point, yelling loudly to prove he was right?

Clearly, we are capable of turning into Adarsh Indians Abroad. It is just that we refuse to do so, because we are too familiar, too much at home. Maybe, the trick lies in turning this aphorism on its head. Maybe all we need to do when we travel within India, is to treat our country like someone else’s home. Where we respect every rule, monument, and law like the Adarsh Indian Abroad respected the 30-minute wait time at the exotic Indian eatery for watery dal and flavourless chicken with a smile on their faces.

Maybe all it needs is for the Adarsh Indian Abroad to meet The Great Indian Tourist. The first could tell him a thing or two about the joy of walking on unlittered streets, and hanging at untouched monuments.