Brussels — I am in the quiet of a business lounge at a bustling European airport. The coffee is strong and true, the croissants sinfully buttery, and self-important men and women of all nationalities fuss about with their laptops. And then I notice something: a prosperous Indian man of about 60, overweight by the standards of a Brussels airport lounge but not of a New Delhi 5-star hotel, is brought in on a wheelchair. The attendant leaves him by a sofa seat and agrees to return when it’s time to board. I feel a pang of sympathy for the Indian — wheelchairs, after all, suggest disability — when, lo, he stands up, waddles over to the food counter, and helps himself to a large plate of pastry. He then waddles back to his seat, and tucks in.
All of a sudden it comes to me, my own “desi wheelchair eureka” moment. Is it my imagination, I ask myself, or is it an empirical fact that a disproportionate number of wheelchair-users at major foreign airports are Indian? I cast my mind back to the half-hour in the public areas on my way to the lounge and recall having seen about six people who were Indian being pushed along in wheelchairs. The previous week, in Amsterdam, I’d seen several, too. I can’t put a figure to it, but there were enough Indians in wheelchairs at Schiphol Airport for me to notice it as a sort of peculiarity.
I post my thought on my Facebook page — “Is it my imagination, etc.?” — and my friends respond immediately. “Nope, it’s true,” says one. “Desis in wheelies.” A lady in Chicago chimes in: “A phenomenon I’ve observed for years.” Another writes, marvellously, from a London airport: “I’m testing your thesis sitting here at Heathrow. I think you’re right.”
Of course I’m right. They’re everywhere: elderly (but not decrepit) ladies in saris in wheelchairs; Indian men who look retired but far from naturally immobile, in wheelchairs. One has always had the feeling, looking at most of them, that they regard the wheelchair as a convenient form of transport, rather like an airport rickshaw.
Other friends weigh in on Facebook, this time with explanations. “Whites may have dignity issues using wheelchairs. Desis are practical and will snap up any offers of free wheelchairs at airports.” Another friend, a little more sympathetic to the travellers-on-wheels, says: “Older Indians are very afraid of negotiating airports and therefore even able-bodied ones use wheelchair assistance.” Yet another adds, in full sociological throttle, that “the phenomenon does allude to larger issues of public health, as well as a cultural trait that demonstrates a particular kind of inertia in a new space. Contrast this scenario with senior (East) Asian travellers at these airports — both in their physical ability and in their movement.” Another friend, more cynical, suggests that this wheelchair business is just “a priority-boarding and preferential-seating ploy”.
I must confess to feeling a mild irritation with most of these wheelchair users. They are not disabled; they’re unwilling, or unused, to walk. As I board my Delta Airlines flight to New York, the man ahead of me in the passageway to the plane is a Belgian with a cane, moving quite painfully, carry-on bag in hand. I offer to help him and he declines politely. “My hip hurts,” he says. “I just had it replaced.” Unlike our fat Indian man in the business lounge, he is not in a wheelchair.
On board the plane I check Delta’s website for its wheelchair policy. As I suspect, all you need to do is ask for one. No doctor’s letter, no medical certificate. “Delta has wheelchairs available for use at airport locations; request this service when making reservations.” And Indians, never ones to miss a trick, clearly request this service with gusto.
I can’t help feeling, ultimately, that the Great Indian Wheelchair Trick has to do with the absolute lack of discomfort, in a certain class of Indian, with being waited on physically by another human being. And anyway, these sprawling foreign airports are such a drag. Why walk?
Tunku Varadarajan is the Virginia Hobbs Carpenter Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.