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AT the gym last week, waiting in queue for a special group fitness class of Masala Bhangra to begin, I was surprised to find myself jostled two places back by a couple of young girls, who shoved their way forward on the pretext that they needed to check the chart pinned on the door. Then, of course, they conveniently parked themselves there, started jabbering incessantly while BBM-ing, and studiously avoided eye contact with the six people who'd been standing in line before them. The rest of the line rolled their eyes in disgust, but effectively were letting them get away with jumping the queue. However, since I'm not winning any popularity contests at the gym for correcting grammar on signages and not permitting people to jump the treadmill queue among several other faux pas I consider unacceptable, I told the offenders to move to the back of the line where they belonged. They sputtered and began to argue but saw 10 people glaring at them, and quietly took off. For anyone who thinks I'm a hard nut, if you've done group fitness you'll know that a place close to the instructor is crucial, or you can't follow the steps. Hence the queue, half an hour before the class even begins.
Historically, in India we have a strong tradition of the "Pehle Aap" culture, which sadly, has all but vanished. We just can't stand in line and wait our turn. You see it at traffic lights, drivers blatantly disregarding that the light has changed from yellow to red but still trying to zip across, not caring one bit about creating a jam with oncoming traffic. I've often thought it's safer to do away with zebra crossings altogether, since nobody ever stops for pedestrians anyway. At restaurants, screaming children run wild, with parents unconcerned that their wards are destroying somebody else's meal. One would imagine, the educated elite living in the country's big cities would be better behaved, but, I suspect, it's only in remote villages in the Himalayas where Indians practise common courtesies anymore. Our reputation as travellers is in tatters — we may be notching up the miles like never before but a poll of 15,000 European hoteliers by travel website Expedia has ranked Indian tourists the worst, behind only the French. We can take solace that others in the league of lousy tourists are the Chinese, followed by Russians and the British, while the Japanese were voted the best. Some years ago, there was a huge hue and cry about a Reader's Digest poll that listed Mumbai as the world's rudest city. Maybe the poll attached too much importance to what's considered good manners in the West — like opening the door for women, saying 'May I' instead of 'Can I' — but being listed right at the bottom of the pyramid of any civility survey is depressing indeed.
On the whole, Indians are nice, genial people. You ask anyone on the road for directions, chances are he'll try to help you out, even if he has no clue what he's saying. Maybe they just don't know that spitting paan on the road is not okay. Having said that, the same horn-blaring paan-spitting offender is also probably not shoving his parents into an old age home and visiting them for one hour, once a year. How can we fix the politeness dilemma? It has to start from childhood, from parents, who should lead by example. I know of a couple of enterprising girls in Delhi, who have started etiquette classes for toddlers. If you can send your child for tennis and ballet classes, why not for self improvement? The three-year-olds are taught how to eat with a fork and spoon, and through play, they learn the importance of listening without interrupting, a crucial life lesson. The other etiquette being ingrained, is to wait your turn.
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