What to do Mrs Dixit, we are like this only!

What to do Mrs Dixit, we are like this only!

When was the last time someone stood aside and held the lift door open for you to enter first, just because you happened to be another human being? And if you were lucky enough to have that happen, what was your response? Did you smile and say thanks or panic that he probably carried pepper spray and planned to accost you the moment the doors shut. I suspect the latter. Because, despite our great and venerable culture, public politeness does not come easy to us Indians. In fact, politeness shocks because it is so unexpected.

When push comes to shove
We will not hold the door open for the one entering an office building behind us, we will not smile at shop assistants, we will not thank auto rickshaw drivers (hasn’t he cheated us of enough already),we will happily order over the head of a little kid trying to stand on his toes to reach the counter to buy some ice cream, and if a junior member of the staff is saying ‘good morning’, ninety out of hundred of us will ensure that our lip twitch conveys succinctly just what kind of  miserable scum we think he/she is.
Will we help an older person cross the road? Of course, not! There are a million things we are getting late for. Will we make space in the lift for new entrants? No way! That space is ours by right of first entry. Let later entrants shape shift and squeeze into whatever volume they can occupy by healthy jostling. Will we ask a person standing near the loo if she wants to use it first? Are you mad? Last one in, pees in the pants! Will we flush after we’re through? What! And risk getting a deadly viral infection by touching the dirty loo handle. Will we wipe the seat and the basin out of consideration for the one who will be using it after us? Certainly not. Besides, most of our wash rooms don’t even have tissue paper (establishments won’t waste money on frills like that) so that one does not really count.

We will not let other drivers pass by because it amounts to accepting we are inferior. We will encourage kids to fling empty wafer packets and cola cans out of the car. If they manage to hit a passerby, we will guffaw in pride at the little devils’ accuracy of aim. We will honk to express emotions, sometimes even at traffic lights that are not turning green as fast as we want them to. And we will never, ever wait in a queue at railway crossings. The strategy is to park cars in a horizontal line (followed both sides) so that everyone is holding up everyone else and a battle of nerves can then be started. This is probably genetic, coming down from all those grand wars that our ancestors fought.
‘Politeness is for sissies’

We don’t perform acts of public courtesy because acts of consideration are for sissies. We are one of many — a billion plus, to be exact. It is a race for survival. And out here only the fittest and the meanest shall prevail. So what happens when someone pushes our little kid on a busy sidewalk? We snarl and roll up the sleeves to pick up a fight. Might as well let it pass because that’s how the little ones will learn the game of impolite survival.

Of course, we’ve all had strange experiences at one time or another. A high profile editor, politely acknowledging a freelancer’s mail and saying he will get back on story ideas sent (whether he has any intentions of using them or not, does not matter). A children’s club, warmly thanking a child for being a member and generously allowing him free privileges when he decides to discontinue membership. An airport official smiling and asking:  “How was the trip?”  Or even a very simple gesture like pedestrians waiting for a family photograph to be clicked because they don’t want to spoil it by accidentally appearing in the frame. These are part of the way of life in most other countries (we baulk at the usage — more civilised) but anomalies in public behaviour for us.

 Why do basic courtesies surprise? Probably because we are used to rudeness. We live in a country of many pushing and elbowing each other at crowded railway stations, without so much as an ‘excuse me’. We have grown up keeping an eye open for drivers shoving their cars in first at the petrol pump, turning a blind eye to the one waiting for its turn. We are used to sales staff grabbing things out of our hands and placing them back on the rack or even ticking us off for making them take out stuff and then not buying it.
 Not surprising then that in a global survey held sometime back, Indians were adjudged the second most hated travellers in the world. What brought us this high score were — a tendency to form groups and talk loudly, not tip attendants, unwillingness to experiment with local cuisine, disinterest in learning about the host country’s culture, shoving to get in front, making fun of people in a language we feel they would not understand etc etc.
Delhi CM Sheila Dixit has come up with an intriguing idea: she wants the private sector to help her government teach some manners and etiquette to the denizens of the capital city before the Commonwealth Games begin later this year. “We need a culture of politeness, sharing and caring so that the world goes back with the impression that we are a truly civilised city,” she is reported to have said. Not an easy task to teach an old monkey new tricks.

Make a beginning...now!
But if Mrs Dixit is really sincere about this, she needs to first educate people on what is desirable public behaviour. Walking on one side of the staircase, letting people get off the metro or a bus before climbing in, exhibiting patience while waiting in a queue, talking softly, using waste bins, the list runs long. And then she needs to implement strict fines for public offenders. Public whipping has worked very well in Singapore. But a true blue democracy like ours will need some other deterrents. Maybe then, our younger generation will grow up civilised and not just badly behaved products of a great civilisation.

Barely civil? That’s us!
Indian tourists are generally loud, boorish and quite inconsiderate of others, and sometimes cultural differences also highlight it. Like people abroad would never dream of picking up food with their hands (as forks, knives, tongs etc are provided) but Indians tend to grab it, resulting in disgusted stares from other patrons and waiters. Also forming a group and talking loudly in public places earns them scorn. That is one of the grudges Australians have voiced about Indians. Interestingly in Switzerland, my brother was staying in a place which did not give booking to Indians (they booked him thinking he was Japanese as he has a Japanese passport). When he asked them why they stated that Indians were ‘dishonest’ (some had made international phone calls from their rooms and not paid for those) apart from being ‘inconsiderate’ and ‘noisy’.
I find that Indians who start living abroad do cultivate the mannerisms of the host country and generally blend in, or they stay in pockets of Indian community and generally be themselves. Personally I find people outside India are very soft spoken, polite, the government officials are helpful (something that never happens back home). There is absolutely no honking on roads and even kids are pretty much well behaved. When my son’s Malay friends come over, there is no noise, no fighting or breaking of stuff. I dread to think of the times when his friends used to come over back home in Ahmedabad. I think Indians have evolved as aggressive people and it reflects even in our children.
Noopur Panwar

Look who’s changing
My generation of Indians is quite adaptable to foreign surroundings. Contrary to what people feel, I think we get into the groove of things very quickly and follow them. Be it walking on the right side of the stairwell, waiting for the bus or ordering in a restaurant I have seen Indians pick up these “mannerisms” pretty quickly. Back home we lapse into old habits because we feel at home. Of course, education is an important part of it — and I am not talking of going to school — it’s just knowing the unwritten rules of the society you are living in. You are not expected to dry your laundry in your balcony which is some thing some of the upscale societies in Gurgaon are adapting now that a lot of expats are returning home. I have been to towns in New Jersey full of Indians — having Indian stores and restaurants and you would find our brethren following these rules in the restaurants or even waiting in queues at the bus stand to get on the bus. I think Indians follow the rules of  society here as they don’t want to be singled out and then pushed out — we are very sensitive to criticism in a foreign land.
Tarun Adhikari
(The writer is a hotelier
living in New York.)
(The writer is a homemaker who has recently migrated to Malaysia.)

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