In Kochi, Kerala I was walking down the street one evening to get some dinner. The street was narrow, but there was a functioning sidewalk – a bit of a rarity for India.
I was walking behind two ladies. I’d guess they were in their 50’s and both were easily identifiable as Muslims from their clothing. One lady was on the sidewalk, which was only wide enough for one person to walk down comfortably, and the other lady was walking on the street, which is totally normal here.
Coming the other way was a group of white people. I couldn’t hear them speaking (and what would happen next would leave everyone speechless) so I don’t know where they were from. There was an old lady out front, and then some younger people behind.
As the old white lady approached the Muslim lady walking on the road, she stuck out her elbow and plowed through her like a running back in American Football about to score a touchdown. It was completely inappropriate, violent, rude, and nasty. After she smashed the Muslim lady, she kept walking, shaking her head.
I can only surmise that she was upset at the world for some reason. Maybe she had explosive diarrhea and was in a rush to get to a bathroom? Maybe she was just elbowed by a local Indian a minute ago? I don’t know.
I will say that in my own experience as a pedestrian all over the world, it does always seem like I am the one who has to move out of the way. It does sometimes get frustrating, but that’s life. If you’re not used to being a pedestrian, whether in India or New York, maybe it’s part of culture shock.
What was interesting was the reactions. When this happened there were three distinct reactions.
- The old white lady: she plowed through and was visibly angry. She was muttering something under her breath and furious. In other words: anger.
- The young group and I: we all immediately stopped and had puzzled looks on our faces. In other words: WTF?
- The Indian ladies: They immediately turned around to look at the old white lady. And they laughed their butts off! I don’t know what was so funny for them – the white lady’s anger, her unnecessary violence, her ridiculousness in general.
I don’t know about you, but it’s hard to imagine this scene playing out in reverse in the West. Imagine the reaction from two old white ladies walking down the street in Modesto, California and a Muslim lady violently pushing one out of the way for no reason.
India for me is synonymous with acceptance and tolerance. I didn’t see any anger or malice in the Indian ladies’ eyes or hearts. Maybe they were laughing because they saw a brown spot in the seat of the white lady’s pants? Just a guess. Or maybe they were laughing because laughter is the best medicine. It must have hurt being unexpectedly hit like that in the shoulder.
I can’t say every Indian would have laughed. I could see a Punjabi woman hitting back, as Punjabis seemed more aggressive to me. But for people everywhere it would be a natural reaction to get angry at the very least. Even in my case I had the initial impulse to grab the old white lady’s arm as she walked by to ask what that was all about and tell her to apologize. Of course I didn’t, but the thought was there.
Attitude is everything. These Indian ladies, whether through proper mental exercises and conditioning or life experience, seem to choose to laugh through life’s trials and tribulations. Too often most of us don’t. We choose to pout, feel anger, feel sorry for ourselves, and let anger ferment into a poison inside us.
I don’t know the trick for changing anger into laughter yet. I can say that I used to be much more like the old white lady and now I’m much more like the two Muslim Indian ladies. I guess that’s why this small incident had so much meaning for me. But I think we’re all capable of making this change, no matter our backgrounds or circumstances.