| Getting to know them
There was a time when generalizations about communities were a part of our common sense. Punjabis were crude, Bengalis were cultivated and Madrasis made good stenographers. We know better now — the Hindu can’t spell, Bengal’s Mamata makes Jats look genteel and Punjabis are the arbiters of Indian haute couture — but sometimes I miss the rough-and-ready insights that lazy stereotypes used to bring. I miss them even more keenly living in a foreign country where settling in consists mainly of getting used to the numberless ways in which the natives are different. Fortunately, nobody expects opinion pages in newspapers to be temperate or true, so here’s my dhobi list that itemizes the ways in which Indians and Americans are fundamentally different. I suppose I’m really talking about the differences between the citizens of Delhi, my home town, and those of New York, where I temporarily live, but satisfactory stereotypes need large bodies of people, so I shall insist that my observations apply to Americans and Indians in general.
Americans are fatter. I’m serious. Indians over thirty aren’t exactly slim but there’s a super-fatted quality to obese Americans that you never see on Indian streets. A huge number of Americans are grotesquely, unnaturally fat. The clothes they wear exaggerate this: where the dhoti/kurta conceals tyres and bulges, Americans men in summer will typically wear long shorts, and the fat ones seem to erupt from their socks into trunk-sized calves and tank-like torsos. Nobody seems to know why they’re so misshapenly swollen though one or two of my informants speak darkly about rogue hormones pumped into factory-farmed animals.
Americans are nicer. They’re certainly better mannered. Shop girls will routinely say “have a good weekend”. I’ve learnt to say this too, only it doesn’t come naturally and sometimes I find myself saying it midweek which surprises people, but they know I mean well. They’re certainly more polite: no one ever interrupts mid-sentence which is very good of them but it does mean that conversations consist of complete little speeches strung together. Politically, this means that people have opinions without having arguments: you can’t have a proper argument if you’re always waiting for the other person to finish. Political affiliation is treated like religious belief: too private to be safely discussed. So you would never ask anyone who they had voted for in the last presidential election.
As a subset of being nicer, Americans are more patient than Indians are. If you’re in a queue and the man in front of you is taking forever at the counter or window, no one will make restless noises to try and get him to hurry up. I’m still not used to this absolute respect for precedence and I have to tell myself not to gabble my way through transactions that need some discussion merely because I have people waiting behind me.
Americans are more straightforward. Or just more literal-minded. In India, “let’s get together” is a pleasantry. In America, “we should meet” is invariably followed by a consultation of “calendars” (never diaries for some reason) and a fixing of dates and times. Social intercourse in America is organized on the principle of cut-and-dried transparency. You express the desire to meet; you set a date and time, you meet at the appointed time and if you have a meal together, you pay your share so that no cumbersome train of generosity, obligation and reciprocity is set in motion.There is a simplicity about getting to know people here that is mercifully free of subtlety and indirection.
It is a simplicity that extends into other spheres. For example, the geographical organization of urban life in America is marvellously lucid: all cities are grids made up of intersecting streets and avenues and more often than not these roads are numbered, not named. So if you have to reach the intersection of 7th Avenue and 23rd Street, finding your way there, thanks to numerical sequence, is wonderfully simple once you are in the neighbourhood. In London, apprentice taxi drivers spend months and years acquiring “the knowledge”, that is, an intimate understanding of London’s labyrinthine road system. Since American streets are mapped on rectangular grids, there is no arcane knowledge to be gathered. It is almost as if metropolitan America organizes itself to forestall “knowingness”, to eliminate as far as possible, the advantage of information that insiders have.
Americans are startlingly egalitarian. To someone from India, the most vividly different thing about Americans is their reflexive belief in individual worth and equality. There are three beggars who I pass on my way to my children’s school every morning and afternoon. This is not so different from Delhi, only there I meet them at traffic lights. The difference is that on 7th Avenue the change given in charity is usually accompanied by an exchange of pleasantries. And it is an exchange: the person giving the change is as likely to say “have a good day” as the person receiving charity. There is a recognition in that exchange, of the beggar’s individual humanity, a recognition that is wholly absent in the exactly same transaction in India.
Finally, Americans are a deeply serious, even solemn, people. They have made such an enormous effort to institutionalize economic rationality, to acknowledge the universal need to get on in life, that the space for any behaviour that might obscure the American way to material success — irony, self-deprecation, wryness — has shrunk. Americans are earnest in the best sense of that term, in that, they are seriously committed to the things they want from life. To say this is not to be patronizing; it is to acknowledge that, in comparison, most middle class Indians seem dilettantish and devious.