India – Courtesy, Commerce and Colour

India seemed calmer than normal. This was my fifth visit so maybe the anaesthetic is beginning to kick-in. Or maybe in the cooler days of February it is less frenetic. Or maybe it was because people were celebrating Holi rather than working.

In the past I have written about the chaos, the poverty and the homelessness in India. This time I have appreciated more what is good about this country which makes up a sixth of the world’s human beings.

Common Courtesy

Everywhere we are greeted with courtesy. In our hotel we are treated with respect and consideration as we order breakfast or buy a glass of beer. We are saluted by the guards at the gate. Doors are opened for us routinely, lift buttons pressed, suitcases transported between cars, lobby and rooms. Each member of staff greets us in the corridor. They put their palms together as if ready to pray and bow their head. They regularly check that all is in order. Is the room to my liking, is the temperature comfortable, when would I like it cleaned, how would I like my eggs? It is quiet and understated and in no way annoying. Rather it makes me feel appreciated and cared for. A notice in the dining area reads; “We apologise for any inconvenience caused whilst we pursue perfection”

Such courtesy is infectious. We smile and greet in return. It is calming and makes one feel better. Every relationship and arrangement is peaceful and happy, at least superficially.

Even on the chaotic roads where there are no rules and an on-going competition for space, there seems to be little downright reckless or aggressive driving. The horns is more a polite reminder than an aggressive rebuke. And they are endless. Unremitting courtesy.

With so many people and so many cars, courtesy and tolerance are essential lubricants. It took us 15 minutes to park up in Delhi. The car park was a random hybrid of self-parking and valet-parking. It was also full and to slot in a new car was akin to those puzzles we had as a kid with the sliding tiles When the tiles are cars, it requires an underlying level of tolerance and patience, disguised by much shouting and animation and screeching of brakes.

Common courtesy not such in the UK. Its absence makes us feel disrespected, undervalued, irritable and rude. And that itself becomes contagious as we focus on our rights and being offended, rather than how to make the world more pleasant for us all. It is up to us to start a better epidemic.

Commerce – Shopping and Selling

Indian retailing is a world apart from the English high street with our brands, merchandising and polished retailed spaces. There are no brand names in the streets of Delhi – you can only find these in the malls. Every shop squeezes its merchandise into a few square feet of shop front. Above the shops are endless signs in bright garish letters. To attract more attention they spill into the street and wherever possible display their colourful fruit, spices or clothes at the front to attract the eye. Kathmandu was the same – in one square there was a glorious display of rugs which would have put John Lewis in the shade.

As we walk past each shop we receive a quiet and polite enquiry – “hello, excuse me sir”. To respond in any way is to be drawn in – deafness and ignorance are the only sustainable tactic.

The goods are rarely wrapped – meat is sold in ways which would make the hygienists despair. Fruit and vegetables are open to the dust and bacteria of the streets, spices displayed in large baskets and clothes hung on pegs. This has the benefit of reducing packaging – helped by the fact that the goods are nearly all locally sourced. Ironic that the western world markets this now on the green bandwagon. And India steals another march. Plastic bags are banned, even re-usable ones. All bags are bio-degradable.

And prices may vary – depending on your bartering skills. 30% off is just about respectable, half-price is a result. Hardly anything is price marked as this would expose the dual pricing – one price for us, one price for them. Trading standards would have a field day.

In the spice market we met the supremely resolute salesman. Alok tried for twenty minutes to get him to reduce his prices on what was only effectively a £5 sale of cinnamon and some masalas. He answered every question with a question. And his prices were fair – and this was a fact, whether we believed him or not. So determined was he to stick to his price, he completely neglected his linked selling. For him it was all about margin rather than volume. It became a matter of pride. Typically in India it is the opposite. Shifting stock is everything.

We admitted defeat and I made a mental note of his technique for the next contract price discussion with our hosts.

Colours of Holi

It was wonderful to be in Delhi in Holi week – the festival which celebrates the arrival of spring, a month before Easter. Thursday was a holi-day for all but the dedicated and IT Support.

Holi is celebrated by people in the streets chucking bags of scented powdered paints over each other – smothering themselves in wonderful bright colours, with a subsequent application of water. The effect is semi-permanent. Young men brightened up the city with their faces, hair and clothes decorated in dark reds, deep yellows, oranges and maybe a purple or a blue. I have a small spot on my own face and one on my arm. Apparently it cannot be washed off and people are advised to wear old clothes on the day. Bonfires are built in the streets and lit at dawn – Holika Dahan.

This is a festival of the seasons and optimism. The spring always comes, bringing its beauty and its hope. The Indians are a fatalistic society – accepting the slings and arrows of life with quiet acceptance, and the possibility, if they are favoured, that things can always get better .

So this is India. Courtesy and customer service. Real retailing without packaging or plastic bags. And the multi-colourful celebration of spring. Not to mention one of the fastest growing economies in the world and the bedrock of global IT. Who needs westernisation?

  1 comment for “India – Courtesy, Commerce and Colour

  1. March 19, 2012 at 6:58 am

    very refreshing read! nice to hear a perspective that steers clear from the usual preoccupation with poverty and filth, and actually tries to understand a culture. though I would beg to differ on the on-road courtesy bit…at least in the metros these days, people do tend to become really aggressive 😦

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