"How rude!" said a pastel-clad, middle-aged American woman to her equally pastel, Ralph Lauren-designed companion as they checked their shoes at the Taj Mahal in Agra. While I did not see the allegedly offensive incident, I have heard similar sentiments from a variety of Western tourists in India: Americans, Canadians, Germans, Brits, Australians, Israelis, and, most surprisingly, the French. Now when the French start complaining about rude behavior, you know that a country is in serious need to consult Emily Post or Judith Martin.
There have been many times when I have been startled by the lack of consideration or even basic courtesy displayed by the general Indian population. I am not talking about the petty, general annoyances displayed by people anywhere in the world, regardless of their cultural background: the family standing four abreast across the only exit from a crowded train station; the person pushing his or her way through a crowd without a single "excuse me" or "pardon me." (though I doubt I would recognize the Hindi version of those phrases); or the front desk clerk who stops mid-transaction to take a personal phone call.
Then there is a type of rudeness that transcends this day-to-day type of inconsiderate behavior. Indian children think nothing of tossing eardrum-shattering firecrackers into crowded streets. One night in Delhi, I ate dinner as people on a neighboring rooftop threw firecrackers, which exploded five feet about our heads. Letting somebody 'borrow' a pen, a railway time table, or a deck of cards usually involves the item being returned several hours later (if at all) bent, broken, dented with teeth marks, or otherwise covered with Hindi script. The elderly feel entitled to pull anything out of the hands of people younger than themselves. While positioning myself to take a picture of a monument, landmark, or locomotive I have often had my camera snatched from my hand and examined by a curious pensioner. I have returned to my train seat only to find that my compartment mate has opened my travel bag, spread its contents over the seat, and proceeded to flip through whatever book I happened to be reading - often causing my book mark to drop to the floor. American lawsuits have been started over less egregious behavior. I do not know whether this is a good or bad reflection of the United States.
I suppose that the Judith Martin doppelganger that writes for the Hindustan Daily Mail or the Indian Times would have issues about Western manners. At the Jaipur Junction Railway Station I had an interesting conversation with Sanjeev, a newly minted officer in the Indian Air force on his first duty assignment on the Indo-Pakistan Frontier. He was telling me about a recent trip on a Western airline from Heathrow to Delhi. "The people in Heathrow were very unfriendly."
"Really? I always found the staff there to be very friendly." I had many memories of Virgin Atlantic, British Airways, or United Airlines personnel helping me find lost luggage, correcting misspelled names on tickets, or re-routing me to make a connecting flight. Even the gate attendants were always there to say "have a nice flight" or "enjoy your trip" - even when the flight was a 3 a.m. departure for Moscow or some other less than salubrious location.
"Not the staff. The people." Sanjeev said hello to various people in the passenger waiting area only receive a grunted response or a skeptical glance over the most recent edition of the Financial Times. When the time came to board the fight, one man did not offer to move his seat to allow to friends - unintentionally flying on the same plane - to sit next to each other. This man requested an aisle seat and was not about to switch to a seat in the middle of a row. Even more shocking was the fact that during the entire 10-hour flight to Delhi the person sitting next to him did not utter a single word to Sanjeev. He just looked at the seat in front oh him, then at his watch, then back to the seat in front of him.
I heard similar sentiments from the owner of a guesthouse in Udiapur. He described guests from America, Canada and Europe as being "cool." At first I thought that he meant stylish, hip, and generally behaving like the Fonz from TV's Happy Days. As he continued telling me stories, I realized that he meant 'cold.' "I always ask them "how was your day?" or "did you enjoy the City Palace?" or "My friend has a rickshaw you can hire" or "I know a good city guide" and they just walk away. The only time they talk to me is to complain about no hot water, or no electricity, or too much noise from outside."