Before I start – if you’re are offended by anything said against India or Indians then read no further. Exit now!

Over the past few months several anti-immigrant incidents have been reported across the country. Some of them have been against Indians. An Indian software engineer was shot and killed and his friend injured in a bar in Kansas City. Others have been asked to “go back to your country”. Yet others have had feces flung at their homes – according to reports. A video emerged from somewhere in Ohio of someone recording a bunch of Indians hanging out in a Park.

This is not about why those incidents “reveal the ugly underbelly or racist America”. No. This is about the why. Why are Indians seen as aliens and outsiders? We are one of the best (if not the best) immigrant ethnic group any country can get. Most – if not all – of us go through often lengthy immigration process to become LEGAL and VALID residents or citizens of this country. We’re sincere. We pay our fair share of taxes. We – again most of us – are law abiding (law fearing) people. So – why?

Assimilation – or the lack of it.


to bring into conformity with the customs, attitudes, etc., of a group,nation, or the like; adapt or adjust:

That’s the reasonable expectation – that an immigrant group conform to the local customs and practices.

Mind you – this is not about following rules or not breaking the law. This is about culture and customs.

There are several things we do as Indians that are so “Indian” that even the most open minded born-and-raised American can be pissed off.

Let’s start with the phrase “Personal Space”. Different cultures have different definitions of personal space. The more crowded the country – the more cozier people get in public spaces. Picture the friendly neighborhood grocery store. You need tomatoes. There is one person in front of you but there’s enough room for two . Now, the American way of doing it is to wait until the person finishes. But you, you don’t wait. You pull up next to the person, getting a bit too close to them (remember 18 inches or less is ‘close’ in the western world). You start picking these tomatoes. Several times your hand can be within an inch from the other person’s. In most western countries that’s defined as an act of war.

It gets worse when you’re in an Indian grocery store – mostly at the Tindora box. When two Indians (who’re already physically too close for comfort) are picking these veggies a third hand emerges from within the 2 inch gap. The hand invasion continues as you and the other person part a move away a couple of inches. The shoulder and eventually the owner of that hand then makes himself (or herself) a happy sandwich and continues gathering, blissfully unaware.

Scene 2: At the restaurant. The waitress is taking your order. The kids want coke. You want them to stick to water and stay healthy – knowing fully well that once they’re out of home they’ll be binging on coke and chips. Instead of saying in plain english “We talked about this at home kids, no cola. Period!”, you start off your Bhagavad Gita discourse in your native language. When the kids try to speak in english you reprimand them. You indicate that you don’t want to discuss this in front of the waitress. Your body language betrays your mention of her. She doesn’t know what you’re saying. All she can tell is that she’s being discussed. Strike 2

Scene 3: The Office. Oh boy where do I start. I know I’m going to take a lot of heat for this but I’ll say it anyways. If there’s one place that has contributed to the alienation of Indians in the US, it’s the IT workplace.

It’s a scene that is probably played out every single day in the thousands of cubed offices across the country: the polarization of Indians vs the rest. We tend to form and move around in groups, talking about obscure politics happening 8500 miles away, cricket matches and their heroes, Bollywood and its heroes (and heroines). Yet we seem to be totally oblivious to what’s happening around us. When someone says “out of the left field” we have blank faces. An acquaintance referred to the 2017 Super Bowl as “that popular football match”. We have that smug smile when an American talks about his son’s “basketball game last night” – somehow conveying that he’s wasting his time while his own son is competing in Math Counts.

We suffer from a severe lack of contextual awareness. It’s compounded by the fact that we refuse to learn. We don’t have to be an expert on American History. But some cursory knowledge of the Cuban missile crisis or the Watergate scandal would do quite well. When we hear Ford Bronco and OJ Simpson in the same sentence we draw blank faces. Why? Even talk of Kyrie’s clutch 3-pointer will render us absolutely clueless. And that happened in 2016.

I guess what I’m saying is that one doesn’t need to transform oneself to assimilate into this culture. But an earnest effort will go a long way in identifying Indians as an acceptable ethnic group as opposed to an alien one. None of the above mentioned scenarios are illegal or unethical. But they are irritants which usually bubble up and cause social issues.

Even in that video of the Park in Ohio, while the person was shooting the video you can see kids running around, crossing his path and cutting in front of him. What you don’t hear or see is a parent asking them to watch for people. If I were in his position I’d be thinking “what the heck – not even the minimum decency towards other people?”

There is a refusal to assimilate – and THAT is what alienates us.

Dealing With Grief

<Some of the elements in this post were written almost 2 years ago. But I finally found the courage to publish it>

Death – the only constant in life. The only guaranteed outcome of life.

The loss of a parent can be devastating. I lost mine a few months ago. Daddy was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia on May 31, 2014. He underwent chemotherapy in June, August and finally November. By mid-September it was fairly obvious that the treatment was ‘palliative’ – a euphemism in the medical business for “If you have money to spend on a terminally ill person you are in the right shop”. He died November 24.

The days following his death were a blur – the cremation, the rituals, the trip back to the US along with a grieving mother, the catching up at work while trying to deal with the reality of not hearing dad’s voice ever again.

Friends and family alike commended me on how I handled the situation. I took a screenshot of the text from my friends “Shravy – you just handled a key life situation gracefully – you are an inspiration to others now”. It felt good – to be honest. This is exactly how dad would’ve wanted me to handle it – stoic and dignified.

The months after his death were hectic. I was training for, and ran the 4-Day Dopey Challenge. When I think back, I guess it was more an emotional challenge I wanted to overcome than the physical venture. Work and family – which had taken a back seat during the tumultuous few months in 2014 – came back into focus as time wore on.

A book recommended by a cousin – Many Lives, Many Masters – brought some much needed solace.

One Year Later…

I’ve dug into myself the last year and tried to figure out why it hurts as much as it does when you lose a parent. My father was not an emotional man when I was growing up. He was detached, even aloof during my childhood and adolescence. He loved spending time with family but never given to things like “well done, great job, I’m proud of you” kind of stuff. To be fair, not many Indian dads of his era betrayed much emotion. As he became older he started being very emotional. As I went away and started living in the United States he probably missed me a lot. He always hinted at me taking up a job in India – without so much as saying “I want you to come back and live here”. But deep inside he would’ve wanted to live among his children and grand children, much like his father before him.

I guess it has to be the attachment. For most people there are 2 people that have always been with you since your birth – your parents. There is never a time when they were NOT there. You’ve always assured yourself of their security. When you lose a parent you’ve lost something innate, something elemental. In the Indian tradition, you’ve lost your umbrella, your emotional sunshade.

I felt a deep emotional void the past few months. Throughout the year we all felt the absence. I guess the first year is the hardest – the New Year, the birthday, the wedding anniversary, our own birthdays. The inexistence comes to the fore every single occasion. Daddy’s was invariably the first call on any birthday. He would remember our Hindu birthdays as well. He would not miss a festival. His ringtone was the song “Agar Tum Mil Jao Zamana Chod Denge Hum”. I miss calling that number. I miss expecting that song whenever I dialed his phone. I miss him terribly.

Two Years On…

I have started writing again – albeit intermittently. It’s March 2017.

Someone remarked at a party recently “has it really been 2 years?” Well yes, it has. Life has slowly moved on. I guess the best indicator (if we can call it that) is mother – she cries still but instead of every phone call it is now once every 5 or 6. We now fondly remember his quirks and habits.

For me, there are times when – out of nowhere – a memory flashes in the mind. The heart swells up with sorrow. Eyes moisten. Memories flash across the mind. The events of the last day, the last words, some last sights play back in the head. Sometimes I think if there could’ve been an alternate ending – anything we could’ve done differently. Natural treatment? Yoga and Pranayama? Voodoo (yes I’ve thought of this as well). What would you not give to have a few minutes with him, hear that voice, speak to him. Alas!

I noticed a strange thing lately. Few of my friends lost a parent in these intervening years after dad’s death. I felt an immediate affinity to them. An urgent need to commiserate. I spent a long time chatting with DV after his mother’s death. When I visited India I met him in Hyd. When our Alphonsus’ gang met in Nov ’16 I went out of my way to talk to two of my friends about their respective fathers, who had passed away at or around the same time as dad. I asked them how they felt, if they experienced any depression. PVL seemed to connect. He agreed he experienced grief and depression long after. He took to philosophy and religion. They say grief dwindles when shared. I’ve tried to share mine, in my own ways.

I started writing this in January 2015. I can’t say I have put the grief to rest. But it seems better now. I feel I can move on – at least for now.

I had started off this post thinking I’ll share my heartache, the loss of one of the most beloved persons in my life. It ended up being a journal. I’m not sure if this can be shared or published. But I think I will, in case it benefits someone who lost their loved ones.

I have come to believe – time is the best healer.

An account of his last day alive are published here (some of the entries are very emotional so forgive me)

“We Are Declaring Him” – Part VI

…Read these first:

“P Ram Mohan Rao?” he said.

I stood up.

“Any other attendants here?”


He beckoned me to follow him. I packed my laptop in and started after him. He didn’t say a thing. I didn’t ask.

As I walked towards dad’s bed, a man in a dark shirt and trousers and wearing flip flops look at me and walk away, past me. I thought he was another attendant. I saw two nurses fiddling with the pipes and cables connected to dad. I didn’t understand what was going on.

“What is happening sister?”

One of the nurses looked up and signaled me to ask the person that just walked past me.

“Is he the duty doctor?”


I walked behind him and said “Excuse me doctor. What is going on?”

The 4 words will ring in my ears for the rest of my life.

“We are declaring him”

It took me a couple of seconds to register.

My father has died.

I turned back towards the bed. The nurses had left.

I walked to his side. His eyelids were partly open. His mouth was open. His head was tilted back. It could’ve been any other time, any other day. He was sleeping. Any time now he could snore. I touched his hands and feet. I stood there – emotional and emotionless at the same time.

It was over.

“We Are Declaring Him” – Part V

… Read these first:

I walked out to be met by mummy and my cousin’s wife Prashanti. I avoided eye contact with mom. Avoided any conversation. She wanted to go into the ICU. Prashanti volunteered to take her inside. The security guard protested saying two people cannot go at the same time. But Prashanti somehow managed to convince him and they both went in.

Outside, there was chaos. Family members of other patients all wanting to go in, two security guards at two separate doors trying to maintain order. There was a family that had about 25 people wanting to go in and see the patient. Ridiculous as it may seem, at the time I only felt sympathy for the family. For the hospital it’s a logistical and medical nightmare. Any one of the 25 could carry an infection that can affect any of the patients. But this is India. There will be crowds every where.

Things seemed to settle down around 9pm. Mummy was coerced into going to her brother’s house nearby. Prashanti and my aunt convinced her she needed some rest and home food. She left around 9:15. Kiran bava had left around 7:30 saying he’ll be back around 11. Chacha and Shravya were still lingering around. Around 10:15 I told them to go home, get some dinner. The discussion hinged on who will stay the night. I volunteered myself and Kiran bava. After some deliberations, they left in an auto rickshaw.

The waiting area was quiet. Only a handful of attendants remained. Some spread out their bedsheets and started lying down. Others just wandered around talking on their cell phones. I opened my backpack, pulled out the laptop, attached the USB wi-fi stick in and started reading my email. It was quite dark in the lounge area.

It was 10:30pm. I know because I just looked at the top right corner of my MacBook Pro.

I saw the security guard walk slowly into the waiting area, his eyes probing for someone. I looked up and met his gaze.

To be continued…

“We Are Declaring Him” – Part IV

… Read these first:

I entered the ICU.

The nurse ushered me into the duty doctor room. It had a small desk table, a desk chair and a 2 person sofa for attendants like me. The doctor wasn’t available immediately so I made myself comfortable on the sofa.

A few minutes later he walked in. A roundly built man in his late 40s, the duty doctor (for the life of me I can’t recall his name) turned out to be a very courteous and well spoken man. This was contrary to popular notion that these low paid doctors are rude and don’t really care for anyone.

“I have to tell you the situation is not good”

My heart sank. I was hoping against hope that he told me something else.

“His lungs are badly affected. There is 21% Oxygen in the air we breathe. A normal person’s Oxygen saturation is 100%. In your father’s case he’s on 100% Oxygen through the tube, but his saturation is only 78%. It means his lungs are not able to keep up”

“Additionally he has internal bleeding. His kidneys are failing. We have to put him on ventilator”

Then he discussed the legal disclosures and consent forms about putting dad on the ventilator.

I finally mustered enough courage to ask him “how long does he have doctor?”

That was when he made the chilling statement, “To be very frank with you, he won’t make it through the night

I managed to nod and ask him if I could see him. I slowly and deliberately walked towards his bed.

He was strapped in, unconscious. He had tubes going in and out of his mouth and nose. There were monitors all around beeping. It was a surreal situation. Here was my father – the healthiest 74 year old I had known, on his last breaths, that too assisted. I touched his left hand and stood there staring at him for a few moments with a blank mind.

I walked slowly back towards the waiting area, not knowing what to answer if my mother asks, “what did the doctor say?”

How should I face her? What should I tell her? Can time stop at 6:45pm? It sure seemed like it to me.

To be continued…

“We Are Declaring Him” – Part III

… Read these first:

As the ambulance started to make its way through the crowded and congested streets of old Hyderabad (yes RTC X Roads is now old Hyderabad) the NRI in me surfaced and began to think the worst. How is an ambulance going to wade through this notoriously indisciplined and indifferent traffic?

To my surprise I saw a different side of Hyderabad that day. Vehicles stopping or moving away at the siren. Even RTC buses were making way, or stopping. Others asking non-conformists to move away. This is what runs this planet – basic human nature to care for another being. A thousand thoughts raced through my mind. How am I going to repay all these people? Then I realized – No. I just have to pay forward, you cannot pay back.

We reached the hospital in about 15 minutes. As we were pulling in, I saw Kiran bava’s car enter from the other side. Clearly he found a way to match our speed. And no he didn’t tail us.

The next hour was a blur. I think I filled out a couple of forms while dad was taken into the ER. Mummy and Shravya accompanied him. Word got around so my aunt and cousins from the area started reaching the hospital. The doctors were checking his vitals. His breathing was still labored. But at least he was stable. At least he was in the hospital. He was in good hands, skilled hands.

Meanwhile I had another task to complete. My flight was in less than 24 hours. I had to go and reschedule it. It turned out to be a simple process, thanks to the rather helpful agent in the Qatar Airways office. I blocked for Dec 10. We returned to the hospital.

Dad had slipped into unconsciousness. His lungs weren’t keeping up. His kidneys were failing. The doctors thought he had internal bleeding although they couldn’t tell where unless they looked deeper. They took him to the ICU – his most hated portion of the hospital.

The ICU is on the fourth floor of Apollo Hyderguda. There were several families like ours. The small waiting area overflowed with anxious relatives. The visiting hours were after 7pm. There was a single security person manning the glass door entrance to the unit. It was humbling and empathizing there that day. There were others in the same situation as ours. Others going through the emotions that we were going through. Others facing decisions that we were facing. Some faces hopeful, others worried and yet others scared.

Around 6:30pm I walked towards the security guard hoping to get into the ICU earlier than the 50 others waiting in line. To my surprise, he said the duty doctor wanted to talk to me anyway and let me in.

To be continued…

“We Are Declaring Him” – Part II

… Read these first:

Mom went and called chacha. I needed physical help to assist daddy on to the wheelchair. He came in. We lifted dad off the loo seat and tried to shift him to the wheelchair.

And he slumped.

I knew exactly what they mean by ‘dead weight’. Between chacha and me we weren’t able to help him on to the wheelchair. Dad had slumped but wasn’t on the floor. Chacha and I both were holding him from falling down. We HAD to get him on the wheelchair. The cramped quarters of the bathroom weren’t helping. I somehow got under him and with all my might lifted his upper body. Chacha pulled from the top and we were able to get him on the wheelchair. He wasn’t sitting right. His position on the wheelchair was slouched. But that’s the best we could do. We desperately needed to get him out of the bathroom.

That was when I realized his stomach wasn’t moving in its regular breathing rhythm. He had stopped breathing. I called out a couple of times “Daddy, Daddy” No response. I lightly slapped him on the cheek trying to wake him up from his unconscious state. Mummy was in panic. I can’t recall what chacha was doing.

I asked mummy to check his pulse. She said there was none. I decided we needed to first wheel him out into the bedroom. We did. By that time he started breathing again – wheezing and gasping. Mummy went and called Shravya – chacha’s daughter and a doctor. She checked the pulse and said it was faint but on.

I called 911 108. Told the dispatch I needed an ambulance and told them the general address. The lady kept asking me district and mandal. I got irritated a bit and told her this is Hyderabad city. She hung up. The dispatcher hung up the phone. SHE FUCKING HUNG UP! No time to get mad. I gave the phone to chacha and asked him to make the call as he probably knows the answers to some of their questions.

Meanwhile I made one more call. My cousin Kiran is an amazingly resourceful person and someone who acts out instantly. While we were wheeling dad out from the bathroom he was the only person I could think of. I called him and just said “Emergency”. I knew he was on his way.

That morning, I had asked my friend Raj to arrange an oxygen tank for dad. He sent his driver to get one and deliver at our home. He called right at that moment saying he was in front of the gate. We quickly got the tank in connected it. Dad’s breathing was still heavy but at least regular.

The ambulance came – within 8-10 mins of the call. Kiran bava came – right before the ambulance. The paramedics loaded him onto a stretcher and into the back of the ambulance. The discussion there was whether we should take him to Apollo Hyderguda – the nearest location, or Apollo Banjara Hills – a 40 minute drive – where he was being originally treated. I can’t recall who made the decision (I think it was Kiran bava) but we decided to take him to the closest ER.

The siren was on, we got into the ambulance and set out. I felt a strange feeling. 6 years ago I had got into an ambulance with Aarya in it when he burned his face during July 4 celebrations. Son then, father now.

To be continued…

“We Are Declaring Him” – Part I

Monday November 24, 2014.

It was 4 days after dad got discharged from the hospital. His fever was under control. His vitals were normal. But his counts weren’t increasing. The doctor gave him a few months. I knew that. Mom suspected it, didn’t accept it and was hoping for a miracle. The rest of the family either didn’t know or did not want to believe. Elderly AML is a deadly disease. At 74, he had slim chances to begin with. But lack of any co-morbid conditions raised our hopes. But a very early relapse three weeks after the first chemo killed those chances.

I was nervous that morning. I was supposed to fly back to the US that night. I wanted to stay back but my work situation was getting tenuous. I had spent several days in India this year. I was working on and off while there. If I had to work any more from there, I would’ve had to declare myself to Oracle India HR and report my income during that time to the Indian Revenue authorities. Things would’ve gotten complicated. I had to make a tough decision and I chose to play safe and leave – hoping that I can be back late December or early January.

When he woke up that Monday morning, he was visibly weaker than the previous day. When I helped him sit up on the bed he wasn’t able to support himself, unlike Sunday. When he tried to get off the bed he said he couldn’t move his right leg – he had lost control over it. We attributed it to extreme weakness.

Still we got him to sit on his chair. I fed him a quarter of an omelette. He hadn’t been eating well so I was force-feeding him.

“ఇంకొక్క చిన్న (one small) piece daddy”.

“ఒద్దు నాన్న(No dear)”

Still I fed him two more before I let go. He washed his mouth, drank some water and said he wanted to sleep. Chacha and I helped him on to the bed. He seemed to slip in to sleep very quickly.

Around 12:45 dad wanted to go to the loo. Chacha was in the chair next to me so he stood up too, to help move dad on to the wheelchair. It took a lot of effort to make him get him off the bed and on to the wheelchair. He was limp, absolutely no effort from him, no energy. I was concerned a bit. It took an even larger effort to make him sit on the loo. His position was awkward – not upright, slouched and without energy, staring at the wall in front. He was breathing heavily and his speech wasn’t clear. He was trying to tell us something but we couldn’t figure out what it was. After about 25-30 minutes in there he signaled he was done and wanted to go back into the bedroom.

In hindsight, this was the moment we lost him.

To be continued…

The Driving Dynamics

Driving in Hyderabad is one of the most exasperating or exhilarating experiences – depending on how you look at it. I grew up driving Ambassadors, Fiats and Marutis and my favorite Kawasaki KB 100 RTZ (Are-Tee-Zed) on these roads. You leave me anywhere in the older part of Hyderabad (the pre-Hitec City area) and I can find my way back home. Every visit to India, there’s one thing I really really look forward to – driving on these roads.

Of course, the traffic in the 80s and 90s was very different from what it is now. The number of vehicles has gone up multifold; and drivers are forgetting the one thing they need to bring along when they hit the road – their brains. But hey, this is Hyderabad – sab chalta mian!

Here are a few observations that should help NRIs willing to take the plunge:

The Center Line

Yes there is a dotted line separating lanes. And drivers are absolutely aware of the line. Car drivers make sure they follow that line – right down the center. In fact if the car were to split in two (a la Sholay motorcycle) the right and left parts of the car would drive along the line in perfect symmetry.

The Stop Light

When the first rays of sun hit this beautiful planet, the birds start chirping – giving us dumb humans audible indication to wake up. Similarly when the stop light turns green, the entire traffic erupts in a medley of honking – the autorickshaws, the cars, the two wheelers. In other words, you can fall asleep at a stop light and you WILL be woken up.

The Road Crosser

Ah yes – that wonderful person that comes in all ages, hues and sizes. They can come in groups too. They look at your car – speeding at 40+ mph, raise their arm shoulder height parallel to the ground and open up their palm – the global hand gesture for stop. Only this comes with the nonchalant authority of a Hyderabadi. He doesn’t expect you to stop. He doesn’t stop if you don’t stop. You both are constantly moving in a well choreographed dance. Nobody gets hurt, nobody gets annoyed – except if he’s with a girl. Then his machismo surfaces and he yells a “Hoi” at you!

Your Peripheral Vision

I wore glasses when I lived in India. Had regular eye exams. But was never tested for peripheral vision. Never needed it. Hyderabadi drivers develop excellent perimetric senses. You never know from which side of your car the preteen dude will weave in – and out in a second.

The Natural Speed Bumps

The traffic races on that one stretch of road without speed bumps (called speed breakers here). And suddenly you see them – black on black, without the black and white markings to indicate there’s a breaker coming. Those natural speed breakers languidly crossing the road. But they do one thing better than humans don’t – they form a nice line/queue while crossing the road. Buffalos rock!

The Fluid State

Definition of Fluid:

substance, as a liquid or gas, that is capable of flowing and that changes its shape at a steady rate when acted upon by a force tending to change its shape.

Allow me to explain. If there is a gap – as in empty space – in the traffic, all vehicles rush to fill it. The fastest gets there first, and the vacuum left by him will be taken up by the fastest foot behind him, and so on. So the traffic is constantly moving, gravitating forward. Another physical science word comes to mind – Flux

Finally… Freedom!

Remember Mel Gibson’s final words in Braveheart? Let’s say you are in a massive rush to get to your destination. You can weave your way in and out, pass vehicles from left and right, recklessly enter oncoming lanes and cut in, and honk the living daylights out of every vehicle on the road. No blue lights chasing you, nobody calling 911 to report you. This is what ‘FREEEDOMMMM’ feels like on the road.

The Little Things

It’s a long way to Tipperary…

Saturday Sep 6, 2014 around 6:00 am Indian Standard Time

As Air India 952 touched down at the Rajiv Gandhi International Airport from Dubai, I felt relieved. Less than 24 hours ago I was sitting at the Gate in Orlando in a Delta 757 that was already 75 minutes delayed. Another 30 mins and I’d have missed my Atlanta – Dubai connection and cut short my 7 day visit by a day.

It has been nearly 20 years since I flew Air India. I had decent memories of my last AI flight, back in 1995 when I flew from JFK-HYD. Food was decent. Times were kept. A pretty flight attendant sitting in the jump seat in front of us giving us a run down of how desi passengers were mostly to blame for Air India’s reputation (“they don’t use the button to call us, some people try to touch us, they don’t flush toilets, they get drunk”). When they announced boarding at Gate C2 in Dubai, I expected them to call the Executive Class passengers in first. Given there were only about 20 Business Class seats on the A320 I was hoping for an easy boarding. Instead, they called for everyone to board. The typical desi frenzy broke out. Everybody trying to rush into the aircraft. That’s when you get the first taste of systematic chaos that is India. Fortunately I found my way in before most others. The moment they saw 2A on the boarding pass the gate agent smiled, and said “you can go in sir”

3 passengers in the Executive Class. Yes – 3. The portly Flight Attendant was pleasantly surprised when I wished him on entering the aircraft. He barely managed to mumble back “Good Morning”. I expected to be asked “Can I get something to drink?” immediately after sitting. Instead, they allowed about 50 passengers before the young man came and asked “Will you eat dinner sir? We have veg and non-veg” After confirming he meant after take off, I chose the orange juice from his tray of drinks.

Boarding door closed at 12:50am. Wow, on time departure! Clearly I was in luck! As we taxied towards takeoff, a lady FA walked around making sure we all had our seat belts strapped on. She has got to be the most unpleasant FA ever. She actually had a frown on her face. Sort of like “why the heck are you on my plane?” Once she figured I was from the US her expression and demeanor both changed. She became more respectful and actually managed to smile on a couple of occasions. Uncle Sam’s charm is universal!

The male FA came around after we reached cruising altitude and asked me what I wanted to drink. When asked what they had he lowered his voice and said “we have whiskey, rum, beer and wine” – sounding like he was letting us in on a secret. I chose Sula, the Indian red. I also chose to eat dinner – chicken. They served the wine and waited inordinately to serve dinner. Turns out Indian passengers like to finish the drinks and then eat dinner. The food was tasty and plentiful. I was famished having only airline food in the past 24 hours cutting across 9 time zones. I could eat idli if they served it cold on that flight.

I was the first one out of the aircraft at RGIA. I was met with 3 people at the end of the jetway. The guy rudely stopped me in my tracks and asked for my boarding pass. See, AI 952 is actually Dubai to Vishakapatnam route, with a 40 min stop over in Hyderabad. At HYD they want to make sure no VTZ passengers accidentally (or intentionally) get off. I wish though that they had announced BEFORE taking off to keep our boarding passes handy. I spent an excruciating 90 seconds fidgeting around my pockets trying to produce the runaway boarding pass. Found it eventually and still made it first out into the immigration area.

At 6:15am with hardly any expected international arrivals, the immigration officials were seen dozing off at their desks – literally. As I made my way to the area, one alert officer realized there were arriving passengers and waved me to his desk. I produced my US passport and PIO card while wishing him a very good morning. At that point he realized I was a foreign national and asked me to fill out an immigration form. Yeah – right there. Wouldn’t it have been nice if they gave us those forms in the plane and asked us to have them ready when we get to the desk? Convenience is taboo in this country.

As I walked out of the hall post immigration, I was stopped and asked to show the stamp and my boarding pass. I wondered why they wanted the boarding pass at that point. Luckily I had it tucked away in one of the pages in the passport. He saluted me and smiled a sheepish smile – the standard Indian method for seeking ‘bakshish’. I ignored. Bakshish for doing his job and checking if my passport had been stamped? No thank you! I slowly made my way to the baggage claim area. After making the customary “I have reached safely” and “I have arrived safely” phone calls respectively I decided to take a bio break. The attendant at the entrance to the men’s room did the bakshish salute as I parked my trolley. Seriously… bakshish for what? Watching me pee?

My two 60 lb suitcases arrived fairly quickly, making me the first to advance to the customs area. As I approached the scanner, in typical desi fashion this dude cut me off and plonked his carton of whatever on to the conveyor belt. The ensuing drama was worth watching. The customs officer (why are they all in plainclothes anyway?) asked – quite politely I might add – the man to unload even his wallet into the scanner. And the guy simply stood there staring, refusing to part with his beloved wallet. The officer got suspicious and said out loud “kuch hai kya purse mein?”. I am patiently waiting behind while the officer goaded and the man refused. Then the guy behind me shouts “kuch nahin hota mian… daal do purse… aage jaake us taraf se nikalta… kahin nahin jaata”. After about 4 mins I got impatient, unloaded my suitcases, picked them up on the other side and headed out, only to be stopped by another khaki wearing officer asking to check my passport and boarding card. OK that’s the third time they asked me for the boarding card. As I showed him the page with the immigration stamp he gave me the bakshish smile and said “kuch tho bhi do saab”. Again, the guy expected to be given bakshish for doing his job and checking my credentials one last time before I head out of the airport. I SMHed (learned that acronym recently. For the uninitiated, it stands for Shaking My Head) and walked purposefully towards the exit.

The last thoughts as I made my way out was how we are missing doing the little things right in India. Good airline with fairly new aircraft and a perfect, on time departure. But horribly unfriendly staff. Great food but no follow up, completely oblivious to international food habits. No immigration cards in the aircraft, or on arrival at the gate, or even a sign that says “Foreign Nationals – Please Fill Immigration Card HERE”. No heads up about keeping the boarding card handy. That bakshish smile wherever you go. The single conveyor belt for customs scanning for a 150 passenger aircraft. What will they do when a 747 arrives? How long will that line be? There are so many good things happening in this country. But to go from good to great, it’s the little things that matter.

I walked into the air that I grew up breathing, and for the first time ever I was first out of the aircraft, first out of immigration and first out of customs. Feels good to be home!