A recent incident on a plane journey made me think of assertiveness as a trait- a trait that is perhaps, not inborn but needs to be cultivated and learnt.

My family and I were travelling on a long haul flight of a reputed international airline. It was time for the evening meals to be served. My daughter was brought the child’s meal and my husband was conveyed his ‘special Hindu vegetarian meal’ before everyone else was served. Fantastic. There is a sweet satisfaction in receiving your meal before everyone else. But this joy was short lived. When the meal trolley was wheeled in for the ‘regular’ meals, I was obviously waiting for my own meal. The air-hostesses fawned over people sitting in front of me. ‘What would you like to have, Madam?’ ‘ Will you have chicken or fish, Sir?’ . When the trolley came to our seats, the 2 air hostesses, conveniently forgot to ask me what my meal preference was and proceeded to the seats behind us and an aisle away from us! So I assumed that they thought I had already been served, since my child and husband had had their meals delivered to them, earlier. Politely, I said ‘Excuse me’ and let the air-hostess know that I had not been served. She then served me my meal. All good. No problem. I ate and slept through the flight.

The next morning, at breakfast, my daughter was served her child’s meal. That’s it. When the ‘regular’ trolley came in, the 2 air-hostesses ignored both me and my husband and proceeded to serve everyone else around us. Maybe I was imagining it, but there were no other Indians seated around us. Maybe, sitting in the 13 hours flight had lowered my tolerance threshold.

But the fact remains that on the second occasion, we were bypassed. I had to then very politely, ask for our meals- my ‘regular’ meal and my husband’s ‘Hindu veg meal’.

We tried to eat our meals; my bolus of food refusing to slip effortlessly down my parched throat. Parched- not because of lack of water but simply due to a meal that lacked the garnish of courtesy and respect.

This time my mind was not at peace with myself. I just felt there was something not quite right. I could have just kept quiet and digested my insipid, unpalatable meal in silence. But if I swallowed my pride this time, I would be letting people walk all over me. It was only another hour and a half to landing. I could have looked out of the window and just ignored the little incidents as insignificant.

It was then that I decided that enough is enough. Alright, maybe I was exaggerating, Maybe I was overreacting. Perhaps I was too critical. Possibly I was nitpicking. Possibly……But an inner voice told me to stand up for my rights. It may have been subtle, but what had happened just did not feel right.

I pressed the button for ‘attendant’ and told the air hostess that I needed to speak to someone about the catering service.A gentleman who was in charge of catering, came over promptly. I told him exactly what had happened. Matter-of-factly and how it occurred. I had promised myself to stay calm , which I did. With firmness and seriousness I told the man exactly what I thought of the service. ‘Unacceptable’ is the word I used. ‘ Not right’. Is another term I made myself use. Yes, I wanted to say‘ Appalling’ ‘disgraceful’ ‘discriminatory’, ‘unfair’, but I controlled myself.

I then told him that the airline was not doing us a favour by ‘serving’ us our meals. That we had paid for our tickets which included meals and that, just as the airhostesses ‘served’ everyone else around us, they should have accorded the same courtesy to us and that I should not have to ask for my meal, when everyone else gets asked their meal preference and the small talk that comes with it!

I think in those ‘polite’ words I made my point and my displeasure felt, not only to the cabin crew but to those around us. In addition I wrote down a written complaint. The effect was instant. The 2 airhostesses came over and apologized profusely multiple times, trying to explain their mistake. Yes, they accepted there had been an oversight and they blamed it on the seats layout in the new aircraft, the fact that the 2 airhostesses were a new team and so on. Apology accepted. Complaint letter posted. More verbal apologies and sheepish smiles accepted from the crew.

This experience made me think as an Indian.

Are we as Indians assertive enough? Do we let people walk all over us? Do we shrink back from fighting from what is rightfully ours, however small it may be? Do we have this ‘gora complex’ where we cower in inferiority and try to belittle the injustice done to us, just to keep the ‘goras’ happy? Why take ‘panga’ with a ‘gora’ isn’t it?

We smile a fake, feeble smile but within us we may be seething and fuming. We may shake our head [yes, our famous head shake that confuses people] but what we probably want to say is ‘No! enough is enough’.

The point of writing this is not say that we should be up in arms against every small thing that is done against us. But when something wrong is so apparent, we need to be assertive. Not aggressive , mind you , but assertive. There is a difference. In this case, had my husband or I been aggressive, used the wrong language, used swear words, I think the other party would have gone on the defensive and labelled us as ‘aggressive’ or ‘abusive’ passengers. The one thing I’ve learnt from this experience is that one can use words that are strong appropriate and effective. A demeanor that is calm but firm and no-nonsense and still puts ones point across very strongly. One does not need to shout and scream to be heard and that I think is the difference between aggression and assertiveness.

As an Indian, I feel we are not taught enough about being assertive and the power of being assertive.

We are taught to respect authority and wherever that does not work, bribery or using influence is the alternative. Where we can, we use aggressiveness too, especially on people who are weaker than us. We will haggle with the local vegetable vendor for a few rupees and scream if he/she shortchanges us. But we will happily fork out a few extra hundred rupees in a mall without a whimper of protest or any attempt to bargain.

We will scream and protest if someone breaks a queue[ if there is one] , but if a ‘gora’ goes straight to the front of queue, I think we would be very grateful for their divine presence.

We will pounce on the cabin crew in Air India and call it ‘cattle class’ but happily allow ourselves to be pushed around by a non-Indian airline crew. Can’t offend them, can we?

We will easily show our might against our fellow countrymen/women- shouting, heaping abuses and getting offended at the slightest of things. But when it comes to dealing with non-Indians especially ‘goras’ why is it that our tolerance level is raised infinitely? That we take more than our share of injustice and put up with it without a murmur?

This is not something against ‘goras’ but more often than we like to admit, we as Indians do have this ‘gora complex’ where we will forgive little cuts and wounds inflicted by a ‘gora’, happily bearing the pain. But the scars remain and haunt us for a long time.

A good friend of mine wrote these words in my autograph book, many years ago

“When I am wrong, I am scared of everyone. When I am right, I am afraid of no one”………

It’s about what is right or wrong. It’s about standing up for yourself and what you think is injustice. It’s about voicing your protest- not with high-decibel aggression but with confidence and firm, quiet assertion.