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Khaled Hosseini, in his book And The Mountains Echoed, writes this of one of his characters Idris, when he is back from a visit to Afghanistan and is on his way home from SFO. “It is strange now to guide the Lexus down the orderly, pothole-free southbound lanes of the 101, the always helpful freeway signs, everyone so polite, signalling, yielding.” Khaled Hosseini might have been writing about me, except that I had been in a Volkswagen and it was not me, but the First Born who was driving on my first ever visit (link) in 2010.

That is what zaps you at first, the order, the queues, the smooth roads, the clear signs and the politeness and the way rules are followed to the letter. I was A.M.A.Z.E.D that people actually STOPPED their cars wherever there is a STOP sign written on the road even when there is no other traffic anywhere around. And always the politeness, to let you go first, instead of fighting to be the one to forge ahead! When I mentioned this to someone, they said they actually enjoyed the chaos of Indian traffic. My take: The truth is some are so used to some of the things in their life that they are convinced that they are enjoying it (the familiarity breeds fondness concept), and so cannot ever accept that it would be a good thing for it to change for the better.

Another thing that I noticed was the personal space allowed in queues, apart from the queues themselves. Here in India, it is not really a queue unless you lean hard on the person in front of you that they can feel every contour of your body, and as a bonus, breathe down their neck as well. This applies to both males AND the females. I was at a wedding reception of a friend recently and there was this queue to go on the dais to give presents and wish the couple. You won’t believe how I was crushed by the people in all their gold, diamonds and silk bedecked finery. WTH. A lady behind me was pressing her bare potbelly and her well-endowed breasts on me that I cringed at such close contact. Annoyed I turned around glared at her. Sigh, but there were more behind her pushing as well. Why can’t people leave even an inch of space between you and them? Why act like impatient and unruly kids standing in queue for their share of ice-cream which might get over any time? This is not an isolated incident, but the norm at many receptions or functions where food is being served. One would think they were starving masses. We Indians literally have no concept of personal space AT ALL.

No prizes for guessing what else impressed me. Cleanliness. It astounded me actually that there was not a single piece of paper fluttering even around the dustbins in public places. Whenever I bring this topic up, my fellow countrymen are quick with their excuse, the poverty in India. Really?!! Give me a break. Have you been to the houses of these poor people you talk about? They are kept spic and span. My household help religiously washes, scrubs and cleans her whole house every Friday (she brings water from a river a bit away from her house), and on auspicious days too. THAT is more than I can say for myself with all facilities and piped water at my disposal. Poverty does not stop her or ANYONE from keeping their house clean.

What has poverty got to do with throwing rubbish in and around the dust bin and never into it? What has poverty to do with spitting anywhere and everywhere? Are these done only by poor people? Anything that the authorities do to make things better is gleefully torpedoed by the citizens themselves. Apathy is our sin. Rich or poor, we just don’t care about anything beyond our four walls. That is what makes us throw rubbish into the empty plot next door instead of paying the waste collector to have it removed daily. That is what makes us throw rubbish AROUND the dustbin and never inside it, that even those who want to comply are unable to reach it through the mess.

I know what they say, that California is not representative of the true America. Since I have only been here, the impressions outlined here are of only this one place. And, last but not the least, a timely warning in advance to those who hate anything being appreciated that is not Indian: Go take a hike. If I see what I like, be it anywhere, I WILL appreciate it. So don’t bother with your patriotic stuff.

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