The Rules of Engagement
Shannon is, perhaps, my oldest friend. We met at the National Cathedral School in Washington DC; we were both not quite 11. Her passion for French was the catalyst for my interest in the language and the country. Shannon moved to Paris after school, while I went there in the fall of 1968 to study and later, in 1973, to accompany my husband who was a visiting professor at the Sorbonne.
But this is not the reason I bring this up. My American friend was my guide to navigating la vie quotidienne, the daily life, in Paris. There were rules for those who had limited means and wanted to lead a rich life in this ‘city of light’. Back then, Parisians were not considered particularly friendly: they were a bit surly, actually. Those berets and baguettes and cobbled streets — and men with Maurice Chevalier accents — were cliches well past their sell-by dates.
La vie quotidienne
How you conducted yourself mattered — beyond of course the bonjours and mercis, which were, of course, a must. The crucial relationships had to be maintained: you had to cultivate your relationships with your butcher, baker and cheesemonger — on a daily basis. Shannon would stop by at the butcher’s and chat as if he were her best friend, fluttering her eyelashes a bit and tilting her blonde head ever so slightly. Flirting was a way of life: it helped to step over obstacles. A bare necessity, you could say. It was long before politically correct rules were imposed and the creeping influence of the Anglo-Saxons and the Americans set in — the latter predominately through Hollywood.
When I raised a bit of an eyebrow over these ‘negotiations’, Shannon enlightened me about the way things worked here. “If I don’t chat up my butcher a bit, ask him about his family and talk about the weather and the awful tourists, he will give me an inferior cut of beef or lamb. Even the boulanger will try and fob me off with a not-so-fresh baguette if I don’t ask him about his children, the problems with his wife’s parents and plans for their vacations.”
It was the same with other relationships, Shannon explained. Behaving like an American tourist (or, for that matter, an Indian one) in Paris was just not on. The concierge of your building — or the cleaning lady, if you could afford one — was high-maintenance. The former would take her sweet time handing over your mail and the latter would leave the corners of the rooms of your home unswept if you didn’t mind your P’s and Q’s. Worse: the scowl with which they answered your polite queries. It was imperative that you interacted with them as if they were almost your best friends, and their lives mattered.
Living the Delhi life
Fast-forward to today’s New Delhi, the city I live in. Hierarchy underwrites our relationships, whether it is with the family (nuclear, extended or joint), colleagues, neighbours, friends or those you carpool or go gymming with. Even more so, all the grocers, fruit sellers and shopkeepers — and most important of all, the household help and drivers we interact with. The unequivocally stratified world of Downton Abbey became history in Europe a long time ago and recently, the same happened here in India as well. Or perhaps became even more subtle: sugarcoating the words and gestures with which you showed people their place.
No longer can one talk down to those who work for you: it would trigger an exit, without even as much as a backward glance. The neighbourhood is full of people looking for domestic helps and drivers, and even your almost-besties are not beyond stealing them from you. The word ‘staff’ seems to have edged out words like servant or domestic help. In an increasing number of households, the ‘staff’ are being included in family functions. The other day, a friend’s daughter gave a birthday party for her ‘staff’, for half-dozen guests, to celebrate her daughter’s first birthday. All of them formed a circle around the cake and blew out the solitary candle. Ayahs are increasingly family.
We Indians are inclined to define relationships precisely. ‘Aunt’ and ‘uncle’ won’t do it, as is the case elsewhere. There are definitive terms for your mother’s sister or brother (elder or younger), their spouses, in-laws — and further up and down and across the extended family tree. Relationships with Amazon Alexa and other avatars of artificial intelligence, including GPS, are growing.
Disappearing fast is the notion of the neighbourhood. It’s all up in the air, or down below. High-rises, flyovers, skywalks and the underground in cities like Delhi, Mumbai and elsewhere are rapidly edging out quotidian encounters — addas, if you like. Or better still, street corners where people gathered and chatted — so beautifully depicted by Kundan Shah and Saeed Akhtar Mirza in Nukkad, the popular television series of the late 1980s. Kolkata was also famous for its addas, where people turned up each morning after buying their newspapers to drink tea and discuss politics and the hot topic du jour.
These street relationships have become rare. An old aunt who lives with her daughter in a swanky high-rise building in Gurugram complained about being lonely. When they lived in a house in Delhi, she used to chat daily with her friend next door. They could converse from their ground-floor windows — without ever having to leave the house.