Diplomacy is nice. Courteousness is pleasant. Rules are important. Still, I’m wary of most people who are always diplomatic, courteous, and rule- abiding. While bluntness can often be offensive and inappropriate, there’s an honesty and spontaneity about it that I appreciate even when it’s harsh. Rules create order, but can stifle what’s natural, which in certain instances should preempt the imposed order and formality of rules. Since I don’t tend to take offense at much, I in-turn extend myself the privilege of being undiplomatic, discourteous, or otherwise rule-breaking with implicit understanding that others will appreciate when the situation calls for blunt honesty, spontaneity, or irreverence for rules. My ideal is a balance of honesty and courtesy, but I’m kind to myself when I fall short. This is the story of what was perhaps a failure of that balance.
It was my last night in Ahmedabad before leaving for Thailand. Ellie, Raju, and I were headed to dinner with Mark at one of his favorite digs, Uncle Sam’s Pizza. Seeing Ellie’s western complexion, he asked where we were from. Telling him that 2/3 of his passengers were foreigners was an invitation for him to cheat us on ride fare or get into a discussion that any foreigner grows tired of in the first week in India, so I gave him an honest but misleading answer.
“I’m from Jamnagar and these two work at Gandhi Ashram.”
We were almost at our destination and started getting out.
“This sister doesn’t look Gujarati.”
“But she speaks Gujarati…”
He starts talking to Ellie, but when she doesn’t immediately understand what he says (because of the paan sloppily stuffed under his lower lip) he reverts to Hindi. Ellie had picked up Gujarati fantastically in her 5 months in India but was much weaker with Hindi and so still couldn’t understand.
“How come she doesn’t understand?”
“You’re mumbling because of that paan. Say something clearly and she’ll understand.”
“Where are you from?” he says to Ellie in his clearest voice after spitting a disgusting stream of brownish-red fluid onto the road.
Ellie wasn’t briefed on my internal plot to avoid discussions about America, nor did she appreciate how late we were to dinner, so she blurts out “America…” in honest and un-misleading way.
“Oh-ho! Superpower! Very rich!!” he says in English. Reverting to Gujarati, he gets into a conversation with Ellie about America, wealth, and his own striving for luxury. Ellie responds patiently and sympathetically, while my stomach growls, and while Mark must have been looking at his watch for the 5th time wondering where we were. Finally the driver gets to the point:
“If I was in America, I’d make 55 crore dollars.” How he arrived at that magical figure I may never know.
“I would fill this whole rickshaw with money…” Both Ellie and I chuckle for a second at the thought of a rickshaw filled with money, or a rickshaw in America.
“Will you take this rickshaw to America and drive it there?” asks Ellie with genuine curiosity about what he’s thinking, totally absent of sarcasm. He ignores the question and gets to the point:
“Will you take me to America? I’ll give you 2 lakh rupees.” That’s about $4000. Still, the question is inappropriate and I would be tempted to shoot off a laughing “no, not possible” and walk away. Ellie has a congenital incapacity to be the slightest bit rude, and so seriously and delicately addresses his question. My impatience grows. This guy ignores what she’s saying about immigration rules etc, and uses her thoughtful pauses to interject more aggressive pressuring. He thinks that this request is something that she’d seriously entertain and she’s trying to negotiate with him. He ups his offer. And then again. Then he tries a different angle.
“America very good. America very nice. India, third-rate. Third class. India garbage…” he says in English, and then starts trashing India even more in Gujarati, concluding with:
“So tell me, will you help me leave this damn country? I want to–”
At this point I had enough, and interrupted before he could go any further.
“Arey, don’t talk to her about leaving India. Don’t you realize that she’s left her country to come and serve in our country? You should be ashamed of thinking in such a way. Instead, why don’t you think about doing something to improve the country?”
“India is third-class, bhangaar–”
“Who spoiled India? You spit tobacco everywhere, throw trash where you please, urinate on the road and then talk about India being third-class? Who spoiled the country if not us Indians? Think instead of serving India, making it first-class, starting with yourself.”
“Yes, but you need money to be–”
“Don’t talk to me about money. Don’t you see? This girl has left America and its money behind to clean up our mess. Our mess. And you’re talking about money? How can we expect others to solve our own problems? If you don’t serve India, if you don’t make it better, who will? You can’t expect everyone to be as evolved and compassionate as this girl, especially when you’re not helping the situation.”
“You’re right. But without money, what can I do?”
“Again money? First make yourself deserving and worthy of what you desire. Fix your own behavior and attitude and then all you need will come your way. Purity of heart and intention attracts abundance. Without that, you suffer in every way, don’t you?”
He’s nodding his head and in agreement with my blunt assault on his ego and aspirations. So I continue:
“In fact, you should come to Manav Sadhna at Gandhi Ashram. See how things happen there. There’s a purity of the heart that you’ll see and feel there. Its that purity that makes everything happen. Sure, they have to spend money, but they’re not slaves to money and don’t chase after it. Its their attitude that create the real magic and beauty there and that’s free. So don’t talk of leaving this country until you’ve done something to make it better.”
“Yes. You’re right. I’ll come to Gandhi Ashram–”
“You have to come tomorrow, or you’ll miss your chance. Manav Sadhna is shutting down for a few weeks after tomorrow. You come at 11:00 for prayer.”
“But what religion are you?”
“Don’t talk about religion. We’re all Indians–” at which Raju interrupts me with:
“Sarva-dharma (every religion)! I’m a sarva-dharmi.”
“I am Muslim. Gulshan Mohammed is my name” he says in English with a gruff tone as he shakes his finger at Ellie, like its challenge to her American-ness and Bush’s foreign policy.
“That’s fine. Will you come?”
And he did!
I was caught up in errands needing completion before I leaving the country (ironically) so I didn’t give him a personal tour and introduction, but one of the many people better qualified to do so than myself handled the honors.
Could he have been convinced in a less blunt, more respectful way?
Perhaps, but that would have been dishonest toward what I was thinking and feeling.
“Good manners without sincerity are like a beautiful dead lady.”
“Straightforwardness without civility is like a surgeon’s knife, effective but unpleasant. Candor with courtesy is helpful and admirable.” –Swami Sri Yukteswar
(migrated from my original Livejournal post)