Some evenings, I pop over to the small hotel opposite college for a quick sabudaana vada or idli saambaar. There, I often run into the same man. Short, slight, fiftyish. Triangular face, toothbrush moustache, endearing smile. His clothes hang off him. He never looks rested. But he greets me pleasantly every time we meet. Just seeing him smile brightens my day. Were you to meet him, you’d like him too.
Other patrons often behave rudely with him. He is a waiter at the hotel.
This man is good at his work. He remembers my usual order. Brings me extra saambaar, unasked. Waits for me to finish my snack before placing a tumbler of filter coffee on my table. As I sip and slurp, other tables summon him with a snap of their fingers, send him scurrying for two measly cups of tea, and complain about the quality of service.
You and I, we may never have done this. But we have continued speaking in English to the McDonald’s cashier who was noticeably uncomfortable with the language. And fiddled with our phones while muttering our orders. Avoided eye-contact with the garbage-man. Or rolled our eyes at each other when the cabbie initiated a conversation.
Where do we find the temerity to talk down to people, especially those older than us? Does the aristocracy of wealth permit us to behave like feudal lords? And on what basis do we sustain that swagger, when very often, the money we’re squandering was earned by someone else?
It is no-one’s life ambition to be a doorman. Yet doormen exist. They hold open doors we can manage ourselves, force out a ‘good evening’ they’ve been instructed to offer, and present a salaam that puffs up many a fragile ego. Day after day, this is life for them. Perhaps we cannot see the point of their jobs. Does that give us the right to see through them?
What the service industry calls a salary, you and I would call a stipend. The cosmetics salesgirl can’t afford the mascara she’s peddling. The man at the box-office has never watched a film in 3-D. The courier-boy earns in a year what you spent on the new plasma flat-screen TV he just delivered. We barter money for a service, the exchange is balanced, the transaction complete. But over and above this, we also expect courtesy, helpfulness and respect in every interaction. As ye give, so shall ye receive, no? It is their job to serve you, not their honour. And it is your right to be served, not your birthright. Be nice.
I’m surrounded by paragons of politeness. My aunt chats for a bit with telemarketers before stating she isn’t interested; I bark out a curt no and hang up. My dad, who once spent a few months working door-to-door for a consumer survey, proffers more thank-you’s than anyone else I know; I am always furious with itinerant salespeople who ring my doorbell. I remember my mum persuading the elderly lady who cooked for two generations of my family to rise off her haunches and sit on the sofa; I have never invited the plumber to leave his slippers inside the house.
I have an easily memorisable phone number. My dad didn’t bribe or browbeat the network executive; he asked if there were any available, and said please. My friend stayed on for five extra days at the Andaman Islands, free of cost; he’d befriended his scuba diving instructors. On the last day for paying my college fees, I had a meltdown in the middle of a bank when I realised I didn’t have my paperwork in order; a compassionate bank clerk transferred funds from her own account and fed me laddoos before I left.
I’d like to work as a barista for a while. When not respiring coffee (sweet joy!), I want to observe humanity. Does the boy who pulls a chair out for his girlfriend, whistle to attract my attention? Does the woman who asks for extra chocolate sprinkles, snap when I ask if she can tender exact change? Does the couple canoodling in the corner smile at me when I flip the music to something more romantic?
George Saunders said, ‘What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.’ I think of the buck-toothed woman listlessly manning the baggage counter at the department store. And the chatty rickshawallah who grew up on the campus of Benaras Hindu University, and drove me through the flooded streets of Bombay. And Prem Singh, watchman, father of two, who many monsoons ago, contracted malaria, developed jaundice, and died.
I think of how many such people I meet every day, and how long my life may be. I cannot live with such regret. Can you?
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