By Amrita Misra
It was an overcrowded bus, during rush hour, in Manhattan. I felt literally drained and was more than happy to have secured a seat. To my courtesy’s luck a young girl (about 13yrs old) stepped into the bus with her mother. The girl was holding a piece of pizza on a paper plate. And the mother-daughter combo drifted through the crowd and found a place to stand right in front of me. Oh well! I had to give up my seat. There were no elderly, pregnant women, or anybody with canes around & .so I thought this young girl (balancing a pizza slice) would be more deserving than me to have a seat. So I offered her my seat. She was delighted and thanked me profusely. And as we were exchanging our positions, the bus braked and my backpack hit the girl’s paper plate &..and plop! The pizza was on the floor, twisted, and a pepperoni piece landed on someone”s shoe. I bet I looked like I had seen a ghost at that moment, and the girl’s face was blushing. I said sorry and she said its ok. It was the courteous faux-pas of the year and it was not ok. I said sorry over and over, and the girl’s face turned sadder and sadder. I could think of only one thing to do, be courteous again. Before my stop, I offered her 3 bucks, and said have another slice, it will make me feel better. The sparks in her eyes were back and she gladly accepted the greens and I alighted the bus feeling better about myself.
Studying in a catholic school for the first 7 yrs of my school life, I learnt most of the courteousness rules that I was supposed to from my Anglo-Indian teachers and sisters (desi -nuns); “thank you”, “sorry”, “excuse me”, “to smile”, “eat with closed mouth and less noise”, and “greeting” being among the must knows. Now I feel, it was more an arduous effort to imitate our masters than becoming good human beings. At home, my parents also had their notions of being courteous, i.e. use common sense. For example, if there were a big stone (or banana peel, more importantly) in middle of a walkway it had to be picked up/kicked away from the path, lest someone should get hurt. Well, I figured out “simply being nice” could be the way to go. At times I would not want to be nice but something within would force me to become courteous, e.g. with bosses or despicable people, damn me! But then there are instances when I would not know what courtesy would demand, so it is much simpler to be just nice.
However, defining nice is a difficult task, as different individuals would have different view points about being nice, depending on their personal experiences and social location. So, I switched to courtesy reluctantly. What should courtesy involve? For me, I guess, it would be providing needful (probably legitimate) assistance to someone other than oneself and acknowledging such an action verbally (or otherwise) when bestowed onto oneself by others.
I feel saddened and angered (more often) when I see that courtesy is not as common place as I expect. And I do not mean the lip service “thank you” “how are you” kind of statements one could hear echoing across the civilized populace. I mean the genuine instinct to be nice and feel good about being nice (rather than feeling proud).
According to a recent report, Uncommon Courtesy, by Reader”s Digest, NYC proved to be the most courteous city (among big cities in 35 countries). Well, a quirky smile escaped my lips, since it was not “Great” Britain. However, living in NYC since last couple of months, I was a little dismayed by the standards upheld by RD. And my dismay springs from witnessing (mostly in the public transport) discourteousness being displayed shamelessly in the city in public by alarmingly high number of people. One would see people with canes standing by the subway-train doors, while young men and women listlessly drooling on seats marked “Priority seating for disabled”; or for the matter a pregnant woman standing in front of a man dressed immaculately in a suit (apparently without a physical disability) sitting with a Metro newspaper and acting as if he cannot see the woman.
I feel that such instances are a reflection of how people feel towards others (strangers) in generalâ€¦.i.e. indifferent. Although we are all huddled in almost the same condition we have mastered the art to shelter our individualistic interests even when the situation demands otherwise and we do not see anything wrong in it. No wonder then that we are living in a country which is at war, and we do not even feel the pinch of human suffering. Our daily chores are not interrupted, we are reporting to work ceaselessly, and losing our consciousness in the sole pursuit of protecting “me & mine”.
Courtesy is mauled when I see hundreds of homeless sprawling the city streets and in subway stations. It is mauled when I see women, the elderly, and people with disabilities on the trains and buses begging. It is mauled when artists offer their skills for pennies on the stations or streets. It is mauled when I witness people with disabilities coming in at my workplace for “vocational rehabilitation” or “vocational evaluations” and being judged by the standards of the “non-disabled”. It is mauled when I read about violence being unleashed on women and children incessantly”.. and courtesy is going haywire, but it doesn’t hurt enough I guess.
So much for courtesy! I will be content in being nice (and angry), as and when necessary.