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A video grab of Bali resort theft. (Photo @twitter)
A video grab of Bali resort theft. (Photo @twitter)

Opinion | Is being boorish an important Indian characteristic?

The global Indian lout emerges from the domestic one. We put up with atrocious behaviour

Indians can switch to the acting mode very fast. Something about the Indian way of life requires hamming. Showing respect for elders and offering to pay restaurant bills are almost folk dances. Often a whole family is the cast, walking out to the stage with no rehearsal. This many of us saw a few days ago in a viral video that showed an Indian family in a Bali resort. They had been caught by the hotel staff trying to make off with various objects from their room.

The head of the family acts surprised. He asks his folks why they had to steal these trivial things when he could buy them stuff worth “50 lakhs". His wife keeps asking him “to pay up". One family member tries to touch the feet of a hotel staffer—but it is only an intent, with his hand reaching for the crotch instead of the feet. They had behaved very differently before they were caught. As a member of the hotel staff says towards the end: “You were yelling at us, now you are cooling down. Why were you yelling?"

Indians who watched this video on social media were disgusted. Not at what the Indian family had done, but more likely at the fact that they had got caught. Already, Indians are among the most despised tourists in the world. Recently Hotel Arc-En-Ciel in the Swiss town of Gstaad put out a notice for their “Dear guests from India", in which the hotel asked them not to be too loud in common areas, or behave in a cheap manner to save money on food, or make a mess at the breakfast buffet.

Indians were in such a mood to self-flagellate this week that most of them, it appeared, were more ashamed than offended. They had good reasons, though, to be offended. A racist view need not be entirely incorrect about a race or nationality, yet it is unintelligent because the potential to be wrong about some Indians does not justify being right about most Indians. Yet, we also know that if the hotel had not insulted its Indian guests in this manner, it would not have got the message across.

An Indian in a first world nation is tame when he is alone. But when he is in the company of friends and family, he becomes emboldened. He is mostly scared of White waiters and flight crew, but is confident to boss around Asians and Africans.

I believe that the primary problem of Indians, especially those who have not been co-opted into the global cultural orphanage, who are instead culturally rooted, is with the idea of order. In India, they observe a social order, like caste norms, but require civic chaos to feel human. They suffer in rich nations because after their early days of enchantment, they grow tired of the civic order, the hold of a straight-line civilization, the confusion of a social order where even men on a garbage truck have so much swag.

Coming from a nation where at any given moment someone is high and someone is low, an Indian seeks the reassurance of social rank in bad behaviour—in shouting at people, and playing loud music and trashing a place.

Something about being considerate is mistaken for humility in India and something about true humility is mistaken for defeat. Humility, for most Indians, is what they do when they are hamming. In fact, Indians “feel humbled" only when they are about to brag about something good that has happened to them.

The global Indian lout emerges from the domestic Indian lout. India puts up with atrocious behaviour. Indians who are concerned about the nation’s global image need to start at home. My friend who runs a hotel in Manali told me that as Indians become more prosperous, there appears to be an endless procession of guests who know that if they find a good problem, they will get a full refund. They are empowered by the new democracy unleashed by travel websites, which allows them to harm hotels by rating them.

There are, of course, far worse louts than Indians. British and American, for instance, who do not need to be among others of their tribe to behave poorly, who are culturally and racially confident enough to do whatever they wish. At least Indians fear that if they get into trouble in foreign nations, their embassy will be totally useless. But the most annoying modern Caucasian lout is the sanctimonious hipster who infests ecologically fragile places and tries to admonish others, especially Asians, on how they must conduct themselves. About two years ago, Condé Nast magazine sent me to Antarctica and I never missed a chance to be entertained by an American who somehow thought Asians were more likely to step on penguins. Eventually, I watched in satisfaction as a fur seal chased him on a beach.

On that cruise, I enjoyed the company of Indians who were festive, cheerful, informed and danced the best. In places where we are allowed to make a noise, our rustic informality radiates a certain incomparable human warmth.

In our fear of brown boorishness, we must not end up entirely imitating the Western reserve. Like the Japanese, who have become perplexing even to themselves.

I had my own experience as a boorish Indian in Japan when on a bullet train I joined a dozen Indians in laughing aloud at a joke. A Japanese passenger told our handler: “Teach these Indians some Japanese manners."

For the rest of the journey we were quiet and elegant. Being refined, after all, is method acting.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, and a novelist, most recently of ‘Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous’.

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