SIR-VILE

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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39 thoughts on “SIR-VILE

  1. You have touched a very pertinent point —- the arrogance of the “middle + upper class” Indian. And you have done it brilliantly…

    • Happened to visit here because a friend shared this post on Facebook. Based on what you have written here, you and I, we are alike (at least in this regard) to a degree that can be considered scary. The only difference being, I wouldn’t be able to pen this down as beautifully as you have and that, I long ago learned the joy of being kind!

      Would definitely go through the other posts! And do keep writing. Please.

  2. I do not often leave comments but this is a brilliant piece of writing. The examples you make somehow don’t get tedious despite you having chosen a single point to make. This is some serious skill.

    • Ditto on not commenting often 🙂
      I was afraid the examples were too many, with no buffers or context. An earlier draft had the latter, but seemed too long. Something certainly has been lost in editing, and I am not as happy with my writing as I should be. But no worries. This is one of those rare posts where what I wanted to say mattered more to me than how I said it.

  3. As children, we were taught to be kind and polite and decent. We were taught that no task is too small or too servile; there was a time when I even washed Grandpa’s car to earn pocket money of 10 rupees.

    And then we grew up. And we order out. And snap at the delivery boys who delivers my fancy burger that costs 200 rupees in the pouring rain and painful traffic, for being five minutes late. I pay no heed to the server who proffers a smile with the food he places in front of me because I’m too busy checking pointless conversations on Whatsapp groups. I forget to say thank you to my barista because I’m usually grumpy on Monday mornings.

    Thank you for this post. I shall try harder to be a better human being from this moment on.

    • Perhaps we should also teach our children that we aren’t teaching them how to be good children, but good people. Curiousness, forgiveness, forthrightness…too many are the virtues we leave behind in those days, no?
      Get off Whatsapp as soon as you can. It is possible to live life without it (I’m not preaching. I’ve been off it since May, and I’ve never been more peaceful). Try karke dekho. Accha lagta hai 🙂

  4. We could all take a leaf from this book of yours and try to be better human beings. Often, it is those little things that matter a lot and help in positive changes rather than one big flashy move. Holds good for basic courtesy, manners and in short, humanity too. As someone who has once been one of those Baristas and someone who delivered the morning papers, I know what difference a simple ‘Thank You’ or a ‘How are you today?’ can do to my day. Who says we can only spread joy with material goods? Sometimes, just being a better human being is all that matters.

    And if each one of us can make a small difference in the way we treat others, I reckon the world could be a much better place. As the saying goes, “You can easily judge the character of a person by how they treat someone who can do nothing for them.”

    It’s my first time here, and I like the way you articulate your thoughts. Good going.

    • Today, just as the lift doors were closing, someone squeezed in at the last moment. He was breathless, so I asked him which floor he wanted to go to, and pressed his button along with mine. As we reached my floor and the doors opened, he said, ‘have a nice day’.
      Made my day 🙂

  5. Hey! I just chanced upon your blog while through my newsgoinnewsfeedfb. And now am going to bookmark it! I’m glad that I have stumbled in here… Thank you for this timeless lesson! Great going!

  6. Excellent, Mrigank! This piece has served its multiple puposes with me. It is thought-provoking. It is educative. It is a wonderful write-up in a foreign language, none-the-less our medium of instruction, and for that it much-appreciated. And for that matter, it has good entertainment value too.

    Thank you, and may you churn out many more such master-pieces.

      • I did feel some guilt-pangs when I noticed the pride people of several other countries take and the passion they show for their own language. And then I do regret that my own medium of education has been English. Like you, I too tend to think, write and dream in English. However, I now want to be able to express myself better in Hindi &/or Malayalam. It is a very confusing state of mind, which perhaps you too may have felt sometimes (I hope!). I teach Pediatrics, and often have to paraphrase in Hindi for the benefit of my students, to the best of my ability (which often falls short of what they may have desired).

        • Throughout school, I used to pride myself on my Hindi vocabulary and Marathi diction. Then I started interacting with patients in the second year of med school, and realised exactly how Anglicized I am. But I got better with practice, I think. And it helped that many of my batchmates were more comfortable speaking with me in Hindi or Marathi, so English took a (deserved) backseat.

  7. It is said that a persons character is reflected in the way he behaves with his subordinates rather than his peers. We often don’t know the story of the person in front of us yet we choose to judge. We are in a position to judge because we were fortunate enough to be born in a good family. Like the rest, I will try change one small thing tomorrow. Thank you 🙂

    • Welcome back! I’m glad to see you’ve found the time to write again. Your Notes To Self is something I bookmarked and keep going back to.
      Oh, and apart from the good fortune of being born into families that could pay for a good education and the tuition fees of classes that helped us in our XII standard entrance exams, we’ve also stumbled into a profession where we always be at the top of the healthcare heap and remain gods for people, at least for a few. It’s so easy for us to sit on our high perches, no?

  8. Genuine thought. Here me out.
    I’m a Medical student and I recently read your (much re-posted) article about how difficult it can sometimes get being one (especially in India). I had my differences with the blog and I do not wish to bring that up here. But I will be honest, I’d written you off as another run of the mill blogger (rude, sorry!) hitting on some touchy subject. But, Sir, your writing is exquisite and I shit you not. It has always annoyed me, this apparent superiority that we, Indians, think we hold over waiters, drivers and countless others. This blog was indeed a great read! Thank you!

    • Hello.
      I wouldn’t still stand by some of the things I wrote in that post myself. My perspective towards medicine has certainly changed in some ways since then. But I did feel very strongly about every word I wrote, at the time I wrote it, and I’m happy I put it up then. Helps me track my growth, in a way.
      Thanks for reading 🙂

  9. Mrigankji, this is a lovely post. It voices my thoughts and mirrors my actions at trying to be kind. But, what do you do when the invisible line has been crossed?
    A couple of months ago, here in a secluded area of Bangalore, my husband and I returned home late one night after a visit to the cafe. It was windy and the watchman was bundled up in a shawl and a bulky jacket that his this skinny frame. I warmed up 2 cups of milk and gave them to him. The effort was much appreciated, and I was duly blessed by our friend, the watchman.
    Weeks later, I was returning home one afternoon, and there sat near the lift a lady who makes it her business to know the comings and goings of the world. Giving her company and feeding her gossip was our watchman. I greeted the lady, who immediately asked if I had kids. When I said I didn’t, the watchman asked, ‘Madam ki shadi ko kitne din hue hai? Abhi tak bachha nahi hua?’ You can imagine my reaction!! Before I could say something ugly, I turned and walked away. I don’t even look at him anymore when he greets. I fear my ‘friendliness’ will be mistaken for something completely different!
    Now, we can give all sorts of explanations like lack of education and the knowledge of my fertility being the society’s concern and business. But from where I am standing, I will think twice before being kind to service providers.
    Your take?

  10. I am sorry you have had a bad experience. I am not suggesting that we force ourselves to be nice to those members of the service class we don’t like. Of course there are bad eggs, and of course some of them, like some of us, must be flawed in unforgivable ways. My only point is, let’s not club them together in a class and dismiss them; each person is different, and deserves our attention, and a response we would accord any member of the non-service class. Should you find a service provider intolerable, he deserves no more of your kindness than the colleague/relative you can’t stand. But everyone deserves that preliminary niceness, and a chance.

  11. i have been following your blog regularly ever since i chanced upon a post someone shared on fb- you write wonderfully.while everything u write is immensely readable, this one touched a chord.. i echo your sentiments too, but there have been times when i was too preoccupied(or otherwise occupied) to acknowledge the person in front of me in the way that they deserved..this post is a welcome reminder, and a pertinent and timely one..i hope this is read and followed by a lot of people. cheers and keep writing 🙂

    • as of now, only in my head 😉 i keep planning to, but life is too busy for now and i keep filing it away for later.. am doing my residency, hence the time constraints.hopefully some day 🙂

  12. Insightful piece of writing that every human being should relate to. In my own case, I am not ashamed to admit that it took a bad patch in my own life to take time to observe and appreciate how every average human being around you is working hard to make his life livable. Living in our own lofty ivory towers, we often take things for granted and scarcely take time to realize that everything that people around us are doing is always not out of their choice but their circumstances. Not everyone started off playing from the same ground.

    Superb writing, keep the stuff coming!

  13. Well said! It is so true, you observe people around you, who are so polite and nice, but the minute they talk to a waiter or a store clerk, the attitude changes! Why? Is it too much to ask to be polite to a person who is standing 12-14 hours a day, to serve you coffee/ tea and probably earns in 10 days what you just spent on a meal?

    My first visit to your blog and the honesty and insights makes for a wonderful but thought provoking read..

  14. common courtesies like ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ don’t cost anything, and I can’t help wondering why more of us don’t display good manners while interacting with the service class …. is it because we’re so shallow and full of self importance that we’re afraid we’ll become diminished if we’re polite and courteous to those whom we seem to think of as the ‘lesser humans’?

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