Sunday, May 23, 2004

No thank you, we are Indian
Madan M. Mathur

Illustration by Sandeep JoshiTHE other day I went to the post office to buy some stamps. The lady at the counter was quite prompt in attending to me. I gave her a friendly smile and said, "thank you". In return, she glared at me with a suspicious expression, which appeared to brand me as a dirty old man trying to make a pass.

Suddenly, I realised my mistake. For a moment I had forgotten that I was back in India where decent old men are not expected to smile at unknown ladies. I had acquired this un-Indian habit during my six-month stay in the USA, where one sees smiling faces and hears "thank you" everywhere all the time. Even while walking on the road, you will be greeted by a pleasant smile and a "hello" or "hi". And courtesy demands that you too respond with a similar friendly gesture.

At first we thought that all this smiling and thanking was just an acquired habit, a part of oneís job. Soon we discovered that more than formal social etiquette, it is ingrained as a part of their normal day-to-day behaviour. "Thanks" is constantly exchanged between husband and wife or parents and children, for the routine things we take for granted. Similarly, at the workplace little tasks done or services rendered evoke a thanks as doesthe waitress who serves you in a restaurant or the porter who carries your bag, of course in addition to the tips! Neither age nor status exempts you from this common courtesy.

Why are we in India so miserly in using this simple courtesy. We do not have any simple colloquial word to say "thanks". The Hindi dhanyavad or Urdu shukriya are formal expressions, normally to be used on official and social occasions or in written correspondence. One does not hear them at home or among close friends. In fact if we say "thanks" or dhanyavad to a close friend or a family member, a typical response may be; "donít be so formal"! It might even appear to be a left-handed compliment, indicating some strain in the relationship! Strangely, however, we do not seem to be so reluctant to say thanks while speaking or writing in English but words appear to fail us while using our own mother tongue.

In our cultural context, thanking somebody is considered a courtesy only to be extended to outsiders not within the close circle. A reason for this is our basically feudal society where the behaviour pattern is largely determined by age, sex or status. Thus elders are not expected to express thanks to youngsters and superiors do not need to thank their juniors. It seems unnecessary to say "thanks" to our wives and children (and vice versa) for all the big and small duties we perform daily. It is considered a dharma to attend to family responsibilities.

Similarly, nobody normally thinks of thanking a taxi driver or a porter at the station because they have been paid for their services. Perhaps they too may prefer more cash rather than mere words of thanks

Why is it that a spontaneous smile does not come naturally to us? Even the photographer needs to coax us to say "cheese" to record a smile on our faces, however, artificial it may look! In our value system, a serious face is considered somewhat immature. Despite claims to modernity, it will not be considered appropriate behaviour to exchange smiles with strangers on the road, as they do in the USA. A man who smiles at an unknown woman is likely to be accused of eve teasing, just as a woman who ventures to smile at a passing man may risk her reputation and invite a scandal! In retrospect, I cannot really blame the lady at the post office for feeling offended at my smile. Perhaps, Shakespeare was right when he said, One may smile, and smile, and be a villain (Hamlet.1, 5).

If we make a genuine effort to smile a little more and say "thanks" a little more often, we may be able to bring a little more joy and cheer into our otherwise mundane lives. I suppose I must save my smiles and thanks only for some special occasions.