Avoid excessive use of hand gestures as it can cause stress to others” reads an instructional nugget, part of a chapter called Day to Day Decency in a book on etiquette and hygiene by former cop Kiran Bedi. The book, Broom & Groom, has been co-authored by Pavan Choudary, who calls himself a wisdom educator.
Let’s face it: Indians aren’t known to have the most evolved standards of social etiquette and personal hygiene. But is a guidebook—one that fashions itself as a nation-building exercise, no less—an answer to that? Will people who make revolting guttural noises to cough up phlegm divorce their long-standing morning ritual after they read: “Be aware if you get phlegm and get treated for it.”
Iron woman: Kiran Bedi in her office in New Delhi. Ankit Agrawal/Mint
Bedi is the winner of the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award, the Asian equivalent of the Nobel Prize. She has authored books in the past and hosts a popular television show, Aap ki Kachehri. Choudary has authored several books and also hosts a television show on Doordarshan called Hum Aise Kyon Hain.
The book has a foreword by former president A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. It is evident that Bedi, Choudary and the publisher—Anu Anand of Wisdom Village—have grand plans for the book. It has had a staggered launch since August and more city launches are in line. Wisdom Village, which specializes in “social wisdom” books, has eight regional language translations under way. The book is dedicated to the Right to Civility, with the authors declaring that they yearn for a social renaissance in civil behaviour.
But this high-mindedness is lost when one comes across the hackneyed instructions and school-textbook illustrations. A disclaimer to the book makes it clear that the book suggests “globally accepted manners” and does not intend to soft-pedal issues that need addressing. Twenty-four chapters are dedicated to Grooming (Manners), which takes up the bulk, while seven chapters make up the Brooming (Hygiene) section. The book is useful in parts—such as the chapters dedicated to appropriate greetings and parking etiquette. But some pointers are either downright fascist (“Do not utter frivolous stuff amongst learned men”) or totally absurd (“Do not use your towel or bed sheet to wipe your shoes”). There’s a chapter on Interacting With Your Spouse that does not belong to the book at all. That said, it might elicit a few stifled laughs (“Do not embarrass your spouse by being overfriendly with the opposite sex”).
The authors intend for the book to trigger a national movement. Wisdom Village plans to release new editions every year with readers’ additions via a website dedicated to the book (www. broomandgroom.in). “Interacting with foreigners” seems to be a lynchpin. Bedi doesn’t disagree. “National pride is very critical to the book,” she says. “Both Pavan and I are sensitive to how we are perceived as Indians.” Bedi says the book’s release was carefully timed ahead of the Commonwealth Games to enhance Indian citizens’ social and professional acceptance globally.
Yet the premise of the book seems dubious. Bedi was embarrassed by fellow Indians during her extensive travels abroad. “We tend to have high decibel levels, we litter indiscriminately and we spread out our belongings in public spaces,” she says. But she believes that the book can be used by citizens of any “developing country”.
Her co-author, Choudary, explains why people from developing countries are generally less well-mannered than their First World counterparts: Their governments haven’t invested in the education, infrastructure and legal framework that makes for a civil society. “We were extremely civilized centuries ago but lost our civility along the way. And we have multiple foreign rulers to blame for that,” says Choudary over the phone, pointing out that the US had the same problem till the 1900s, till a responsible government took over. Both believe that it isn’t too late to change. But perhaps it is too big a task for a pocketbook to achieve.