Kids Corner


My Journey Across The Styx:
Or, How I Flew To India





The Styx is a river in Greek mythology that formed the boundary between Earth and the Underworld .



I am working away on my laptop on Flight MH072 (Malaysian Airlines) in a desperate attempt to divert the attention of this oldish village zemindar next to me. He’s on his way back after visiting relatives in Malaysia.

I wish he’d stop talking.

You will understand why, as you read on ...

A flight into and out of India always brings out the worst in me. My ancestry is from the subcontinent, but I was born and brought up in the diaspora.

My first 'cultural shock' through exposure to India was not until I was 20 years old. I have, since, had a fairly healthy love/hate relationship with India and Indians in general. I hasten to add that I have a great many dear, dear Indian friends and I love them!

I do travel to India about once every two or three years now, and have done so over the last twenty odd years, and somewhat less frequently before that. Only to North India, I must add - especially Delhi and Punjab.

My travel is mainly connected with my world music group which primarily consists of non-Sikhs. Accompanied by my fellow-musicians, I sing from gurbani in the language of Guru Granth Sahib but explain the verses I sing in English.

So I travel globally with this group and have concerts all over the western world, in folk and arts festivals attended mostly by ‘western’ audiences.

As a result of all of the above, I feel a foreigner in India.

A flight into and out of India is always a harrowing experience.

For a start, I gave up traveling Air India about forty years ago -- it was my first  flight into India -- when I found that the stewardesses treated all Indians poorly, while they treated the others, especially those of European descent, most cordially.

To be fair, I have come to realize through the years that it wasn’t entirely their fault -- that is, the stewardesses’. Based on my travels back and forth, I have come to the reluctant but firm conclusion that more rude and unruly passengers than Indians cannot be found anywhere.

Well, other than a flight I once took with my group from Hong Kong to Osaka about 20 years ago, when almost all the cabin passengers, mainly Chinese or Japanese, lit up cigarettes as soon as the flight took to the air!

Today’s flight is no different.

Nowadays, I try to fly Malaysian Airlines whenever I can, as I like their service.

But, here’s the problem.

Firstly, Indians do not like to queue up. If and when they can, they will push themselves in front of you and, if you’re brave enough to confront them, they’ll nonchalantly saunter back to the end of the line as if nothing has happened.

Then, they almost always carry more hand luggage than they are allowed to. I simply do not know how they are able to get past all the check-points along the way into the aircraft. So, you can imagine the pushing and shoving that goes on? I almost lost my turban -- and an eye! -- a number of times as large bags were driven through the aisles at eye-level.

Next, many will try to hog seats which are not theirs in the hope that they will remain empty, so that they can get their loved ones to sit with them within hugging distance -- a direct result of checking-in late, I might add.

Imagine the pandemonium as more passengers pour in and demand their rightful seats: the hand luggage has to be moved about all over again, this time from and to already overflowing overhead lockers. And then, the traffic!

I had made the mistake of sitting strategically in an aisle seat close to the toilets. Until, on one trip, six desi women bundled in thaans of saris, and two burly males, all decided at the same moment that it was the best time to ease themselves -- before the plane took off!

Even with frantic summons by staff to take their seats, they all managed to ignore the laws of the universe and do their bit. Followed by the inevitable stench. We could have used insect repellent spray … or, incense sticks, for heaven‘s sake!

Oops! Hang on! The passenger behind me is not happy with the space he has got and is trying to shove me into the seat in front. Just saved my turban again! Thankfully, sensing palpable resistance from me, he has decided not to pursue the matter any further.

The plane finally took off … and that is when the real story starts.

Disembarkation cards were handed out. Sitting beside me is another desi. He sees me filling out my form and asks if I could fill his in ... and his wife's ... and his two grandchildren's too!

I duly obliged.

Then he decides that he wants to be friendly and starts talking to me. Where I am from, etc. But, very quickly, the topic changes to: “How many daughters do you have?”

When I tell him that I have three, he gets noticeably excited. You see, he has  two sons back in the village and perhaps we could, er, talk? They’re good, healthy boys who would make good husbands, he tells me. I tell him that my three daughters are unfortunately (fortunately!) already married.

But that only leads him to explore other possible avenues, as to how they could come to Australia. Perhaps I have friends who have daughters - even 'gora' friends will do, or 'gora' girlfriends who might want to get married for cash, anything, as long as the boys could come to Australia.

Do I not have farmer friends who might hire them? I must have mentioned that I was a musician. Well, one of his sons can sing folk songs galore. And the other plays the dholki. Perhaps I could bring them back as part of my 'jathaa'?

He proves relentless and his wife watches me intently, looking for, perhaps praying for, signs of my weakening under the onslaught.

I am getting desperate! I try to divert him towards politics - always good for a few hours of banter! How does he like the current mob of politicians? What does he think of Manmohan Singh as PM? Nope … he isn’t going to let go of his mission to settle his sons abroad!

I get up in desperation and walk to the toilets. But the smell drives me back!

Finally, I open my laptop and tell him that I have to write an article! I start typing. Glad he cannot read what I am writing! He has now given up for the time being. I have four hours to kill.

I have re-written this piece three times by now and New Delhi airport draws closer … ever so slowly.

He has now decided to do a pedicure on himself. He has deftly taken off his leather jootties - no socks of course! - and placed one foot on his lap and is picking the dead skin off it. And then massaging it. Now the other foot.

He smells his hands and them quickly twirls his heavy moustache and ploughs his fingers through his beard. That must have taken the smell of feet off his hands … and the dirt too.

Now he is sticking his finger in his nose.

Thanks for staying with me while I side-track this relentless desi from talking to me. If his boys have half his tenacity, they will soon be in some European country, or the Middle East, Dubai or even in Australia or New Zealand. Bless him. (Bless those countries too.) He means well, but I have had enough of him.

I decide to go to the staff station to talk to them … I make my escape.

I love India for its diversity, its contrast and its obsession with the idea of religion and its, well, ‘religious’ practices, its poverty and its veneer of affluence and its crazy charade of democracy. I love its wildernesses, especially as one goes into the Himalayas and Himachal Pradesh. I want to see more of it. I have not been to South India yet!

But, Lord, I wish I did not have to travel with Indian passengers to get there, and back!

“Cabin crew, please take your seats for landing!”


As I pack my laptop he asks if I could give him my card. I tell him that I do not carry cards. OK, please write down your phone number and address in Australia. I tell him that I travel a lot and do not have a permanent address in Australia!

How do we keep in touch? I do it through e-mail, I say. OK, then, write down your email contact, please. I am trapped. I go blank for ideas. On a piece of paper, my hand pens ... “”

What is your name? “Sher Singh”, I blurt out.

Nice name, he says.

May 13, 2013

Conversation about this article

1: Raj Sandhu (Montreal, Quebec, Canada), May 23, 2013, 1:50 PM.

As an ex-flight attendant who worked the Toronto-London-New Delhi route, I couldn't agree more. There is a common understanding within the airline industry that Indians are among the worse passengers to serve. As a 2nd generation Sikh-Canadian, it was always embarrassing to see my crew quiver when they saw Indians boarding the plane. The stereotype is that Indians are over demanding, heavy whiskey drinkers, selfish, loud, and couldn't care less about wearing a seatbelt for takeoff/landings. God only knows the number of times I have been asked to gently request our Indian men to stop harassing our female flight attendants, particularly the 'gori' ones. Unfortunately, Dya Singh has given us evidence once again, with this excellent article, why Indians have that terrible but well-deserved reputation of being boors.

2: Mahanjot Sodhi (Mississauga, Ontario, Canada), May 23, 2013, 2:25 PM.

Hahahaha ... this is one of the most hilarious pieces I've read re travelling with desis. I almost fell off my chair! I've had a few interesting experiences as well, but this one certainly takes the cake. Thanks for sharing, Dya Singh ji! When are you visiting Toronto again with your group?

3: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), May 23, 2013, 6:31 PM.

Dya ji: What a lovely and hilarious piece! I am sure Sher will get an e-mail before long -- who knows, maybe from one of your fellow-passenger's sons, looking for a job as an assistant editor. Years ago, while on official business, I used to travel business class. As I approached the BOAC Business Class counter at Heathrow, the clerk said, without looking at the ticket, that it was for business class passengers only and directed me to go to the economy class counter. "Please look at my ticket," I said to her politely. And when she did, she went visibly pale and started to apologise. Said I, in chaste English: "Oh! It is nothing - it is my looks, I know."

4: Inni Kaur (Fairfield, Connecticut, USA), May 23, 2013, 7:55 PM.

Love this piece! Going to be a copy cat: requesting an email ID - Dya Singh, you are the best!

5: Harinder Pal Singh (Patiala, Punjab), May 23, 2013, 9:11 PM.

Lovely narrative! The site is about the Sikh diaspora, so I admit there's a huge gulf and understand the embarrassment Indians cause around the world. Have very little experience though, but in my travels haven't found other communities completely unimpeachable. Don't know why but an Urdu couplet is itching to express itself: hazrat-e-insaan ka gumaan kitna tez hai, khak se paida hua-par khak se parhez hai!

6: Harinder Singh 1469 (New Delhi, India), May 24, 2013, 12:50 AM.

Who says laptops are bad? If only we could get one for the old man and his sons. With a tutor like Dya Singh, they could do wonders. Inspite of the best gadgets today, our wayward youth in Punjab are stuck with fancy ringtones but are not feature savvy. I worry about them ...

7: Anit Kaur Randhawa (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), May 24, 2013, 2:48 AM.

Hilarious! On one Malaysia Airlines flight two years ago to New Delhi, I timed the service bell went off every 3 minutes. The cabin crew responded to my sympathetic smile: "Ma'am, it is expected. If you think this is bad, try the flight to Chennai!" I haven't gathered the courage yet!

8: Roop Dhillon (London, United Kingdom), May 24, 2013, 7:11 AM.

I find this funny and sad at the same time. It is all so true. 25 years ago, I flew Air India (I am of the diaspora as well) and was treated worse than a dog whilst the "whites" were higher than Shiva. It is sad Indians are like this. The first novel from India I read after teaching myself the Punjabi language was aimed at people in India telling them how to swindle the social service system in the west, etc. I was shocked. I do believe those born and brought up in the diaspora are of a different ilk ... they are free of India's regressive influence.

9: Harpreet Makkar (Brampton, Ontario, Canada), May 24, 2013, 4:15 PM.

I'm surprised how the writer and everyone making the comments above can make such gross generalisations and be judgmental about everyone and everything Indian! Probably you haven't come across the right kind of Indians ...

10: Inder Kaur (Rochester, New York, USA), May 24, 2013, 7:44 PM.

You're absolutely correct, Harpreet ji. But remember, if all Sikhs are 'Khalistanis', then surely all non-Sikh Indians who subscribe to, condone or tolerate such an asinine view are plain idiots. Have you ever been on an Air India flight? Ever sat next to an India from Uttar Pradesh or Mumbai or Bangalore? Dya Singh's description is but an understatement, I'm sad to say.

11: Ari Singh (Sofia, Bulgaria), May 25, 2013, 2:43 PM.

I used to work as Purser on East African Airways and was often on the Naiorbi - Bombay route. I can only say that the Indians are the worst passengers and Japanese the best!

12: J. Singh (Australia), May 26, 2013, 7:00 AM.

I think Dya was kind in his writing. He is merely sharing his unpleasant experiences, not belittling all Indians. The same goes for Pakistani passengers: they think they own the airline. Not to mention the keen expression of interest on the fairer sex (stewardesses ), the profanities, etc. On one of my trips home from New Delhi, the smoke alarm went off and the crew ran to the washroom. They politely reminding the passenger that smoking on board was an offence and not allowed. Out comes this desi bufoon in his mid-20's, smiling. And his friends cheered him. Without wasting too much time, I walked over to them and reminded them that my life is also at stake and if they tried it again, I would not be too kind. They got the message loud and clear, since it came from a Sardar and I was treated like a VIP by the crew after that, extras and all :-) It pays to help out! The Indians have no inkling on how bad they smell. If you remind them, they will reply that they can't smell anything bad. Let's leave it at that, or else I will be writing a book here.

13: Raj (Canada), May 26, 2013, 11:27 PM.

O, this is hilarious! My traveling experiences to and in India are not any different from Dya Singh ji. In 2006, we took an Air Canada flight from Toronto to Delhi. My mistake. It was like traveling with a zoo. The typical, not-lining-up to check-in, not-sitting-on-the-seats-assigned to them, bragging about how much they can drink without being wasted, and so on. One idiot even took a pillow-case off and put it on his head. My kids, who were in their early teens then, had never seen anything like that; they were laughing their heads off. Another time when I was flying to India, our flight had a four-hour layover in Muscat. One Indian took his shoes off and started a brisk walk up and down the airport corridor. A lady sitting next to us said: this fellow was tired by the long flight and took a bath in the washroom, now he's feeling really good. She added that the man had said: the water wasn't flowing nicely and it was really tight for space, but he managed to have a bath. I had already used the washroom: I didn't see any shower stalls and I knew the airport didn't have lounges either. So, my curiosity increased and I wanted to see where these shows stalls were, remember we had to kill four hours in a very basic airport. Anyway, I checked the washrooms and stalls, I couldn't find showers anywhere. As I was walking back, it dawned on me what that the desi had done. You see, in those countries, there's always a hose by the toilet seat to wash yourself after you do your business. The man had taken a shower with that hose by the toilet. It was funny and pathetic at the same time.

14: Paramjit Singh Grewal (Auckland, New Zealand), July 02, 2013, 6:12 AM.

Dya Singh ji, excellent observations. I would like to add the "bell ringing". I have only flown on Malaysian Airlines from Kuala Lumpur to New Delhi and on a recent flight, the total "bells" which were rung in the first 5 minutes of that flight were more than during the eleven-hour flight I had from Auckland to Kuala Lumpur on the same airline. Lastly, Dya Singh ji, I do not disclose to strangers that I live in New Zealand but tell them it is Malaysia, since it's partly true -- as it is my birth country. I find this answer has less questions from fellow flight members. I also want to acknowledge the various Indians who, over the years, have always made my trips to Punjab memorable ones.

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