North by northwest

North by northwest

North by northwest

When it comes to helping strangers out with directions on the street, we Indians stand alone. No self-respecting Indian will ever use those three words ‘I don’t know’, if approached by a perfect stranger. It is one of our more endearing traits. An English friend of mine narrated this amusing experience.

 “I needed to get to the Passport Office. I had the address — 9th Street, 8th Cross, 17th Main, Door number 157 (old), 325 (new), Neelasandra Extension 6th Block. A helpful landmark was provided — three buildings from the old Galaxy Theatre, now demolished. Perfectly clear to the meanest intelligence. So there I was, holding a crumpled piece of paper in my hand, looking lost. Google maps had long given up the ghost. I then waved down an auto rickshaw and asked for directions.”

My hapless friend then went on to narrate how the auto driver told him to go straight, turn left at the third traffic signal, then right again at the Nandini co-operative milk booth corner, walk about 5 minutes till I hit the Siddhi Vinayaka Temple, skirt round it, go past the Kendriya Vidyalaya Pathashala, and there you will be — the RPO. He finally found the place, three days later. As he observed somewhat wryly, “The Passport Office was located at the south-west quadrant of the city, whereas I was given directions to proceed north-east.”

In fairness, he bore no grudge against the auto driver. “Everyone here is so eager to help. They take it as a personal slight if they can’t point you in the right direction. And another thing. Why doesn’t anyone talk compass language? Why is it always go straight, turn left, then right, straight again?” While one can sympathise, he needed to understand that in India, we are like that only.

Now consider the reverse situation. On my first visit to London, I had to encounter some unusual predicaments myself. One problem I faced was that directional signs were too clear. Royal Albert Hall — 15 metres, meant precisely that. Which threw me into a tizzy, prompting me to ask an elderly lady, if the Royal Albert was, indeed, 15 metres away. “That’s what it says, dear. Can’t you read English?” Thus chastened, I slunk away.

Then there was this dreadful north-south-east-west business. I walked up to a bobby on Regent Street and asked him how to get to Charing Cross station. “Just walk in a north-westerly direction, sir, and turn east at the third intersection. On reaching the Embankment promenade, it’s six minutes going westwards.”

“Mar gaya,” I muttered to myself. I looked up at the slate grey, leaden London sky to try and spot the sun, and thus figure out where east, or for that matter west, was. But the sky hid its secrets well. Not having the gumption to go back to the bobby, I trudged along aimlessly. And then it happened. I ran into a 70-something Indian newspaper vendor — dishevelled, but full of good cheer. I repeated my request to direct me to Charing Cross station. “No problem, sir,” he said, speaking passably good English with a touch of Peter Sellers. “You walk straight for about 100 yards, turn left just before Bond Street, walk another 50 yards and turn right before approaching Trafalgar Square. From there it is only five minutes.” I was home and dry. I gladly picked up a copy of the Daily Mail for 50p and walked swiftly away, whistling a happy tune.

My saviour migrated to Britain 50 years ago. But if I might paraphrase a well-known aphorism, “You can take an Indian out of India, but you can never take India out of an Indian.”

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