Sometime ago, I visited my old professor Upinder Sawhney at Panjab University and we got into discussing the highs and lows of the career of Manmohan Singh as prime minister, and the issues plaguing our economy today. Our engaging tête-à-tête had been on for a while when I realised it was time for me to leave. After I got up, the thought of leaving the chair askew made me so uncomfortable that at the risk of being considered peculiar, I pushed it right back inside the table. As a child I had always been instructed by my mother to do that after every meal, come what may. I guess, its embedded in my subconscious mind.
This was just one of those things she'd fret about not being taught in public schools, comparing with her elitist boarding-school education. To my surprise, instead of saying "Oh let it be, don't trouble yourself," the professor looked through her pair of spectacles and said: "A forgotten courtesy today, replacing one's chair!" and got back to her computer, typing out something fast. I smiled and bade her farewell.
On my way back to the library, I was reminded of an anecdote one of my teachers at school had narrated to us. Years ago, a filthy rich Chinese delegation had visited a premier Indian institution for signing a memorandum of understanding. Everything went well until the moment the meeting got over and the Indians pulled their chairs back and prepared to leave the room. The Chinese urged them to stay put for some more time. Without any debate, they decided among themselves in Cantonese to make no deal with Indians who lacked basic manners. That was that.
I reckon basic etiquettes and manners have taken a backseat in today's competitive world. Education at schools is limited to arithmetic and science, medals and distinctions, and other indicators of institutionalised excellence. Manners are yesteryear "British hangover" of the rich and elite, they argue, it won't fetch you a seat in a premier engineering college. How do people react when the movie-ticket vendor at the mall or the local grocer passes them wrong change by accident? I've seen people pounce on them and react in the most horrendous, absurd manner possible.
Every moment is a test. The neo-rich people who haggle with the subzi-wala to save `5, deny a wage labourer a cup of tea after he finishes repair at their house, and break a queue at the bank are commonplace. Parents find it amusing when their children run around in restaurants and play with cutlery. It's a pity to watch the so-called graduates from top institutes struggling with a fork and knife, or talking with their mouths stuffed. Maybe they could teach them how to use a pair of chopsticks and not eat noodles with a spoon; or to talk softly because there are people at the other tables, enjoying a humble dinner with their families.
Why do we reserve our finesse and manners for "people like us"? Why can't we speak with the same courtesy and politeness with a rickshaw-wala as we do with our neighbours? In an increasingly globalised world, parents ought to realise the value of manners. There are some things in life that money can't buy. Etiquettes are one of those. Next time the telephone rings, instead of saying "Yeah, who's this?" try: "Please, may I know who's on the line?
The writer is a freelance journalist based in Chandigarh