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Monday, Mar 04, 2002

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This is India, my friend

Timeri N. Murari

A FRIEND, who recently returned to India from a vacation abroad, hit a roadblock in Bangkok. He had an `O.K' ticket from Bangkok to Chennai on Indian Airlines. Now he had been wandering for a week in remote places.

There were no telephones where he'd gone. When he went to check into Indian Airlines at the Bangkok airport, he was rudely informed that as he had not re-confirmed his flight 72 hours previously, his seat was cancelled. Tickets of 15 other passengers, with `OK' status were also cancelled. No explanation would appease our IA. A weary, well-travelled Australian, also a victim, turned to my friend and sighed in explanation: "We've just hit TII." Many of the weary passengers burst into laughter.

"What's TII?" my friend asked, as he'd never heard the expression before.

"This is India."

India can start long before a traveller reaches our shores. I had the same experience once, returning from a trip to Australia. I was connecting to Air India from Singapore to Madras and despite my 'OK' and valiant efforts to re-confirm in Melbourne, I was bounced off. With our airlines, the passenger, who has paid good money for his or her ticket, is always to blame. I haven't flown that airline since.

This is not just about the airlines concerned. This Is India. The TII experience can begin at the visa offices of our embassies abroad. I've heard hair-raising tales of rudeness by our officialdom, delays, run- around, inefficiency, indifference. I'm always surprised by the persistence of such travellers who run that gauntlet and finally make it to India. At least they've been forewarned, but not forearmed.

I don't quite know where we got the reputation for our hospitality. It's a good myth. If you're a tourist with no friends in India, India can take you for a very rough ride.

The other day an American warship, the USS Blue Ridge, was visiting Madras. One of the crew told me he'd been charged Rs 2,000 for a taxi ride from the harbour to a five star hotel. He wanted to know if that was the right fare. I did a quick mental calculation and figured it would have been cheaper for him to catch a cab from JFK airport to downtown Manhattan, including paying the toll. I hedged my answer, feeling angry with that taxi driver. The crewman had also visited the shops for his token souvenirs, and prices had leapt like kangaroos in fright the moment he stepped in. We assume because he is a tourist we have the right to rip him or her off. They are very aware of being ripped off, and harbour a long resentment against the country.

Our problem is also exacerbated by our neighbours, both far and near. In a foreigner's eye, we're all part of a huge mass called `Asia'. Asia is a state of mind, you either want to dip into it or avoid it altogether. To our immediate south, we have Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka pulls in many more tourists than the whole of India. An American friend, based in India, visits SL often to get away from India. It may be a war-riven country but he likes SL for many reasons. The main one, he said, is that the Sri Lankans make an effort to work on every small detail and get it right. Americans love people

who'll "sweat the details". Even the smallest restaurant, tucked away in a small road, will be spotless and the service efficient, the people genuinely polite. He saw Sri Lanka through a critical American eye. He said the problem with India is we pay no attention to detail. We sketch in the broad picture and then just leave it, so all the minor, irritating things can fall apart. I've seen this happen in our five star hotels.

Further away from us, we have Singapore and Malaysia. Both these small countries, are a few light years ahead of India in virtually every aspect of their development, from roads to telephones to cleanliness. They entice their visitors with sensual and intriguing commercials. Their airlines are among the best in the world, we can't even compare our two airlines with

theirs. They're in different leagues altogether.

As we travel further east in Asia, the world becomes better for the traveller. Thailand, South Korea, Japan exist in a different world to ours. They're hi-tech, clean, efficient societies. They still retain their distinct characters and yet allow it to function in the 21st century.

What can we do to get rid of that slur, TII? I don't know. The malaise of indifference has seeped too deep into our society. We don't care about our poverty, bad roads, ugly garbage everywhere, corrupt politicians, corrupt bureaucrats and shoddy workmanship.

We've become inured to the badness in our society and unhappily embrace TII.

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