I suppose I owe my readers (all three of them) an apology for not posting to this blog. But all that is going to change, as of this very moment. Once you know what I am up to, you will understand the reason for my uncharacteristic lack of communications. I have been wandering around the country.
I should start at the start of my present journey. Left the SF Bay area on Tuesday afternoon, on board an Airbus A380. I had never been in what is called the “Superjumbo” and was really excited about the flight from SFO to Frankfurt. Good plane but unfortunately Lufthansa is one of the worst airlines in the developed world.
I have had better service in the cattle class of Asian airlines than what Lufthansa provides in their business class. It’s a shame. But what’s a real crying shame is that they have put lousy 20-year old design seats in one of the world’s most modern planes.
Anyway, here’s what I wrote in my “A Letter from California — 5” of this week, for the record.
This is the fifth in the series “A letter from California.” Strictly speaking though, this is not a letter from California since I am in India. I arrived at the Chattrapati Shivaji International Airport in the early hours of Thursday the 13th of October. So this is a letter from Mumbai. Indeed, the next few letters will be perforce from India, and not from California.
It is good to be back in the old country. There’s always a primal connection with the land of one’s birth, the home of one’s ancestors. India will always be home – or at least as much as any place can be called home for an essentially homeless person like me. Since I roam around the world a lot, any place I unpack my suitcase is home. Not exactly home sweet home but home nonetheless.
I must have arrived at the Mumbai international airport around 35 times, and I have grown accustomed to the routine. The final minute of the flight before it lands is over a huge expanse of slums, reminding you that you are arriving at a major city of a Third World country. Among the many descriptions of Mumbai there’s one which describes it as “an overgrown slum.” Unfortunately it is too true.
As soon as one gets off the plane and enters the jetway, the first thing that hits you is the heat and the humidity. The second thing is the smell: a mix of disinfectant (I think it is phenyl) and the smell of urine. Why this is so, I have never been able to figure out. The third thing you notice is that the lighting is an unattractive florescent and dim. The journey from the US to India takes you across time and space: 10,000 miles and around 100 years. The journey also crosses an ideological divide: from capitalism to socialism.
The first point of contact that an arriving passenger has with an Indian official is at immigration control. They are a surly bunch. Not the least hint of a welcome on their faces, not a hello escapes their lips. I start with a “Namaste” as I hand in my passport. They silently take it and do their thing. After a bit, silently they return the passport, duly stamped on some random page. Perhaps it is the lateness of the hour that explains the unfriendly attitude. But perhaps it has something to do with India being a socialist country.
I cannot help comparing this to what I have experienced when I enter the US, an evil capitalist country. The man or the woman at the immigration counter generally starts off with a smile and a “How are you, sir ?” This is then followed with some small talk, and a few questions such as “How long have you been away ?” and “What do you do ?” I usually answer, “I am at UC Berkeley.” That gets a response like, “Great school. You are lucky.” And the short encounter ends with a “Welcome home, sir.”
All this can be dismissed as superficial and unimportant. But I believe that common courtesy does make a difference. Official India is not interested in being nice because they don’t have to be nice. Official India is not there to serve you, but rather to rule over you. That’s the socialist way and in any socialist paradise, there’s no need to ease things with a smile since things are perfect anyway.
The French are notorious for their rudeness. But I think Official India beats them handsomely. And talking of the French, I have to tell you that the worst service you get on an airline has to be Air France. “Air Chance” is another name for it. I once had a long conversation with a flight attendant on an Air France flight. She said that it was shameful how the cabin crew behave on most Asian airlines: they are forever at the beck and call of the passengers. On Air France, the cabin crew had better things to do than to take care of passengers.
Official rudeness is a symptom of a deeper problem. It is like a bad smell that tells you that something within is rotten. Just the other day, I was reminded of this by a very astute leader. He said that good governance is revealed in the way the conductor in a government bus treats you. How that government employee behaves with the passengers on his bus tells you a lot more about the quality of the government than the state of the bus station.
Good governance is about how government employees — from the minister on down to the clerk at the post office — consider to be their primary objective and function: to serve the citizens. Good governance is distinct from development. Development is about the infrastructure. Good governance precedes development, and is the more important bit.
Think about it.