Home >Opinion >Columns >Rich Indians these days are waiting to flee India again

Now and then, everybody has to flee home. Flee from parents, children, the spouse and the city. And, if you are Indian, flee from India. Upper-class Indians used to look forward to their periodic escapes from the difficult nation. They were not all terribly rich, just upper middle-class and beyond. They used to quit India once or twice a year by means of a straightforward vacation, work assignment or compassionate visit to an ailing relative abroad. Some would participate in amateur sports competitions held overseas, like triathlons. Even do-gooders fled to attend conferences in beautiful places. But the pandemic has stranded them all, and made them endure India for too long without respite. Even Indians with long-stay Schengen and American visas could not leave because of travel restrictions. Or because it was simply unwise. After all, India has somehow emerged as one of the safest places in the world.

Now, as the end of our great pandemic nears, or seems to, Indians who must exit India periodically to survive life are getting ready, keying in places on Google and ogling at images, as they await that moment when some of the world’s richest nations become safe to visit. As of today, the countries that are interesting to Indians and welcoming them are Russia, Uzbekistan, Ukraine and Turkey. These are good options, but the proper West is more alluring.

Tourists tend to describe a destination through its geographical features and prospects for activities. Such a description will not fully capture the essence of what Indians love about leaving India. If it is just about snow and skiing, India has among the finest slopes in the world; if it is about hills, mountains, rivers, great lakes, beaches, forests, ancient tribal settlements or grand ruins, we have them all. But people do not travel for a geographic feature. People travel to flee.

What Indians enjoy about the West, consciously or subconsciously, is the whole spectacle of the West—all that order and urban beauty. Cars go in lanes, and my favourite part is how they don’t quit the lane even when they turn a corner, and even when no one is watching. Honestly, I can watch this for hours. I do not know if order is a form of intelligence or retardation, but it is captivating to see a whole civilization maintain it. People across thousands of miles, across a whole continent, driving in their lanes—that is the real spectacle.

Moreover, median lines are not the only markings on those roads; there are so many other things, in different colours signifying different things, and everyone who drives there seems to know what it all means. And there are walkways everywhere, and they look fancy too, as though pedestrians matter.

Out there in the West, it is hard to convince people that they are happy, especially in Europe, where they have for long claimed things are bleak. But all I see there is joy in plain sight, street joy. People spilling out of olden-day pubs, on to cobbled ways, and drinking, eating, talking, singing and laughing. Kissing, too. And the government doesn’t consider fun an enemy of the state. In the midst of laughing yourself, you don’t see beggars carrying underfed infants. There is no trauma as far as the eye can see. Nothing is ominous. Not even other people’s religions.

Their newspapers, which are very mild affairs and do not stab you in the morning with details of brutalities, speak of gloom. But when you step outdoor, you don’t see any of it. The roads instead are filled with happy people who look expensively dressed, even if it is not winter. And everything is easy to do, whether it is getting on to a bus or just walking around for miles. And you don’t have to get molested or endure great suffering just to watch cricket like it is meant to be, in an actual stadium. And, of course, the air is so clear that it smells of trees, and on some days, you may also feel the full force of the sun.

There are spots in Gurgaon where if you train your camera at a particular angle, it will look like the First World. The optimum angle is somewhat upwards—that is, just about six feet above ground level, the altitude at which you don’t see Indians in the frame. Something about how Indians go about—the clothes worn, the gait—conveys the very antithesis of an affluent economy.

In the West, the uniform of the cops, too, looks so good you immediately accept they must be important people. Actually, all uniforms look important. Even waiters look so important, Indians tend to behave themselves. I think it exhausts Indians to spend so much time respecting people who are poorer than them. That is probably why they go looking for some Indian restaurant—to find Indian waiters they can torment. I witnessed this phenomenon in Amsterdam. Indian tourists would be very courteous with the service staff in most eateries, and then they would be found at Saravana Bhavan, which employs only subcontinental staff, yelling at the waiters.

After their first few days or weeks enjoying the spectacle of the West, Indian upper-class travellers somehow grow melancholic. All these straight lines and rules, all this order and equality, it gets to them. And they are happy to return home—which looks orderly from the sky, at first, before all those things that looked like straight lines are slowly revealed to be crooked. And the air is filled with horns and dust. And the returning Indians then rush off to their expensive islands, where they pay a premium to keep real India out, an India that occasionally seeps in, though, as a food delivery guy.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, and a novelist, most recently of ‘Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous’

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