Punctiliously courteous

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One could not believe that the hotel in Kyoto expected a foreign guest to go back to the station at 8 in the night for just two dollars, despite the proffered 99.9 per cent advance. But there was no racism or random unhelpfulness. It was a symbol of blind obedience to instructions. An Indian receptionist would have said, “Koi baat nahi… kal dena”

Last week I got an opportunity of visiting Kyoto in the cherry blossom season. An ancient city steeped in history and tradition, and the capital of Japan for 11 centuries, it was deliberately excluded from atomic bombings and air raids during World War II. From the moment I landed there I was struck by the Japanese people — polite and smiling but almost robotic in their reactions. What a contrast to the vibrant populace that constitutes India — so infuriating, so individualistic, yet so endearing.

The train journey from Osaka to Kyoto was an eye-opener. No one used cell phones as a courtesy to fellow passengers (without instruction). Whizzing past high-rise buildings and residential colonies, I was struck by the compactness of the homes — each with its tiny porch where one car fitted exactly into its allotted space. Within each colony large patches of greenery sprang up between houses displaying luxuriant flowers, vegetables or just green grass. Owners have the option to cultivate their plots (to save tax) and are not compelled to concretise. What an idea!

After my arrival at the futuristic Kyoto station, a virtual township was overwhelming. It is a tribute to everything design and engineering could conceive but lacking in English signages where needed most. Very soon I was reduced to “the man, the goat and the bundle of hay story”. As I climbed escalator after escalator in pursuit of my exit gate, I had perforce to leave behind one bag unattended and descend the five level escalators, leaving the first bag unattended, many times over. Anywhere else in the world this would have invited either robbery or confiscation of the luggage, but here in Kyoto neither passers-by nor closed-circuit cameras cared. When our super competent British conference manager also underwent the same travails, I felt greatly reassured.

Entering the hotel was a new challenge. Room charges had to be paid in advance and I found myself short by the princely sum of ¥200 — the equivalent of two dollars. I was advised to go to Kyoto station and return with more Japanese currency. I could not believe that the hotel expected a foreign guest, a grey-haired woman with an acknowledged group reservation, to go back to the station at 8 in the night, despite the proffered 99.9 per cent advance. But there was no racism or random unhelpfulness. It was a symbol of blind obedience to instructions. An Indian receptionist would have said, “Koi baat nahi… kal dena,” even if the amount would be hundred times more.

The next morning we were driven to an ultramodern conference centre in Kyoto University, another accolade to modern architecture and engineering. Each floor was dominated by a spectacular 300 degree view of thick forests that stretched as far as the eyes could see. Our conference hall was an extension of the glass globe, but my heart sank when I saw no screen, no projector and no curtains to shade the glare. How would I show my brilliant PowerPoint presentation? If this was the situation at 9:25 am, how anything could be managed in the next five minutes was upper-most in my mind.

But precisely at 9:27 am, the Japanese Co-chair ascended the dais, literally lifted a finger signalling two students to sprint upstage, unfasten folding furniture and display name cards in a flash. Thirty seconds later a ceiling-to-floor screen descended from an unseen niche even as vertical blinds (invisible until then) pulled together to shade the giant glass panels. The Japanese professor bowed and said apologetically, “Here we do it ourselves.” At exactly 9:30 am, the Conference began. There were no backdrops, no flowers, no water bottles and no bulky conference bags. Also no platitudinous speeches.

I will always remember Kyoto’s landscaped gardens, the elaborate tea ceremony at the Nijoh castle, the cherry blossoms almost prearranged to open on time. I coveted the perfectly planned pedestrian and cyclist pathways set off by manicured shrubbery running parallel to every busy road. The extreme courtesy shown in shops and restaurants was another refreshing experience. But juxtapose that with the complete lack of knowledge of even basic English — (waiters did not know the meaning of either fish or water) — the Macdonaldisation of the younger generation and an indifference to the non-Japanese world outside and one had an odd combination.

Despite the dust, dirt and potholes that surround us in India I could not help remembering the vibrancy of Indians as they communicate with each other. Of course everything in India is haphazard. Courtesy, punctuality and quietude are unknown. Berating everything is a common pastime, even as civic sense is thrown to the winds. Indians are happiest when they succeed in short-circuiting procedures. Ingenuity or the art of jugaad is valued much more than dreary discipline. But every Indian possesses a natural flair for showing empathy and a spirit of helpfulness is inborn. The ability to share everything — even if it is half a samosa — is congenital. One simple ‘yaar’ can fetch co-operation from the most assertive and questioning antagonist.

For all the perfection and serenity of high-tech cities and courteous cultures, give me the hurly-burly of India any day.

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