Culturally, India is a bit of a hotch-potch. Truly, there is no such thing as “Indian culture”, because the country is peopled with so many different groups, who live together (sometimes harmoniously, many times not), and they are rarely homogeneous.
In the case of my family, we are from India, but have lived for a long time abroad. It was in Dubai, which is another melting pot of humanity, except there it was nationality that made us different, not regions. Granted, Indians predominantly interact with other Indians, seeking inclusion in the comfort of known and recognised, but we did interact with the others. So there was some amount of cultural transference – again, some bad some good.
After moving back to India, there was the instant realisation that we were “different”. I don’t really know how, but there was a divide. It wasn’t physical or even economical. It was somewhat behavioural in retrospect. It was the way we spoke, or the way we dressed, but mostly the way we interacted with other people. In Dubai, it was customary to be polite. Please, thank you, sorry, and excuse me are words that are hardcoded into our behavioural processes. In spite of being told many times to stop “being so formal”, I couldn’t help myself. I thank taxi drivers, I apologise for bumping into someone, I excuse myself when rising from a table, and so on. Hundreds of tiny behavioural patterns that made it us and them.
The other day, my mum, aunt and I went out shopping. I was in dire need of jeans. We trotted off to the nearest shopping plaza, and after some arduous selecting, settled down to have dinner at Domino’s Pizza.
As we were clearing the table (self-service at fast food places is another thing that was built into our systems in Dubai), there were other people waiting to be seated. They got really close to us, as we gathered our things. It was uncomfortable, and borderline offensive. I initially ignored it. I was with two older ladies, and courtesy demanded that they wait at a respectful distance so as not to crowd us out.
But they didn’t. I barely rose from my chair, before one of the fellows nipped behind me and sat in it. I couldn’t help myself: “It’s a good thing you waited till I got up. You’re in such a hurry, you would’ve sat in my lap otherwise.”
He ignored me, and refused to meet my eye. I let it go. But I had awoken the beast: mum. She proceeded to lecture the two blokes on etiquette. About waiting till people had left. About having courtesy for ladies. About not being so self-absorbed that their own comfort was paramount, and exclusive to all else.
It fell on deaf ears for the one who slipped into my chair, but the other one was sufficiently riled to respond. He adamantly refused to apologise, actually saying that! “It’s OK! It’s OK! No need for sorry. No need for sorry,” he chorused in broken English.
Of course this fanned the flames with my mother. She read them both the riot act, whilst he continued chanting his mantra. It was a stalemate. Finally, I got fed up and dragged her off.
It was an unpleasant experience, but finally what did I expect? This isn’t the first time nor will it be the last that people have been downright rude. It greatly saddens me to think that my countrymen are so often obsequiously deferential but lack the barest sliver of respect for their fellow beings.