In the summer of 2010, a certain wisdom dawned on Lalit Bhanot. In the run-up to the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi, the then Organising Committee general-secretary remarked at a press conference: “Indians and foreigners have different standards of cleanliness.”
His comments were a response to queries pertaining to ghastly images of dirty toilets, stained sinks and paw-marked mattresses in the Games village that had become global news.
Why, you may ask, this sudden memory? A European holiday. It was my first foray in that continent. Hence, the new-found fetish for clean roads, courteous people and civic sense. A 10-day trip to Vienna, Zagreb, Split and Dubrovnik can do more than take your mind off worldly matters. It can fill you with instant contempt for your countrymen and women. For, as I observed, albeit without quantitative research, a good majority of us are blessed with downright disgusting standards of public hygiene.
The first thing that floored me upon landing in Vienna was that misnomer called the European summer. In many ways, it is a bit like the famous English summer, though not as fickle with rain. With temperatures in the mid-twenties all day, the salubrious weather was a welcome relief from the oppressive heat back home. Then there were castles, shops, architecture, artefacts and a bunch of random strangers at the hostel to indulge myself with, without bothering about the ‘what ifs’ of everyday existence.
People visited strip clubs without worrying about prying eyes and sheepish smirks, metro trains allowed the entry of pets, cycling to work was still in vogue and journalism was a respected profession.
On more than one occasion, people exclaimed with awe upon learning about my day job. “Journalist! Great job,” cried a Hungarian. “Journalist. Good. Beer?” is how big Boris greeted me in Split, Croatia, while his mother gave me an unforgettable ego boost with a perfectly-pitched “Aaaah journalist!” Suddenly, the vitriol that people reserve for my ilk back home was a distant memory.
If you are wondering if my nationalism too was on holiday, here’s a rebuttal. In Dubrovnik, made famous by Game of Thrones (GOT) and later the Shah Rukh Khan-starrer Fan, there came a fleeting moment of fortitude that would make Karan Johar proud.
Made to believe that it was unmissable, I signed up for the GOT tour. Now, being a non-GOT watcher can make you feel slightly out of sync in the group, unless you ignore the ramblings of the eager tour guide and focus instead on the breathtaking Adriatic sea lashing the city walls in rhythmic, majestic symphony.
“Many movie stars come here to shoot,” the guide said. “Shah Rukh Khan was here recently,” he continued, pointing elatedly at me and my twin sister. “Soon, we had over 2,000 Indians flocking to Dubrovnik. They wanted to see the place where Khan shot his movie.”
A giggling American, a self-confessed die-hard GOT junkie, goes: “Can’t believe people follow celebrities to that extent.” “Yeah, it’s a bit like you coming all the way from the US to visit places where a fictional TV series is shot,” said my sister with a grin. The American could afford half a smile.
So the snooty Westerners were put in place and ‘that’ national anthem scene from Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham... was recreated in our filmy minds. Now we soaked in the surroundings.
As Dubrovnik is built on a hill, the roads are on a gradient. Here, you can take the desolate alleys in late evenings or early mornings without being mobbed, drugged, doped, groped, robbed, raped or killed. The stench of waste is absent. And the locals don’t sneer at dark-skinned people. The city, however, is not for the weak-kneed, for you may have to climb about 200 steps to reach your accommodation.
Just about six hours away from capital Zagreb by road, Split is one of Croatia’s most popular islands. While the road trip itself was a treat with the quaint countryside sprawled on either side of a spotless highway, the first sight from the bus stand was mesmerising. The turquoise-hued Adriatic Sea called for an almighty embrace, as did the towering Diocletian’s Palace in the background.
The bus station was clean, public Wi-Fi was free, and the local white wine was excellent when paired with the scrumptious grilled sea bass or risotto and shrimps.
While in Split, you must island-hop. A miniscule motor boat wades through the expansive and slightly unruly Adriatic to a clutch of islands, weather and winds permitting. On one such island, Togir, an elderly Croatian, approached me with an inquiry: “Indian or Pakistani?” “Indian,” I replied. “Good. Indians are good here,” he said, pointing to his head.“Mahatma Gandhi. Very good man.”
However, in the queue to board my flight home, a big fat Indian family pushed its way up the line. Misogynistic comments about the staff passed as innocuous humour. Ordering for everything complimentary was par for the course. Upon landing, the pack was in a hurry to get out of the aircraft.
In my mind’s eye, I can see the uncle’s family discussing Europe’s cleanliness and civic sense while deriding ours. It’s true. There’s a bit of Bhanot in all of us.
From HT Brunch, January 15, 2017
Follow us on twitter.com/HTBrunch
Connect with us on facebook.com/hindustantimesbrunch