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The World | DISPATCH FROM MUMBAI, INDIA

There's No Polite Response to This World Title

The metropolis is named the capital of rudeness by Reader's Digest. Residents beg to differ.

July 28, 2006|Henry Chu | Times Staff Writer

MUMBAI, India — True or false: The people of this bustling city are the rudest on the planet, men and women who could learn a lesson in good manners from New Yorkers, those paragons of politeness.

True, says Reader's Digest, the world's most widely read magazine.

Fuhgeddaboudit, say Mumbaikars. (Yes, that's their name. Got a problem with that?) They're outraged by the New York comparison -- or, at least, being on the unflattering end of it.

A war of words has raged here since the July issue of the magazine published a survey of 35 cities around the world to which its reporters were dispatched, undercover, to assess people's politeness.

Mumbai, the metropolis formerly known as Bombay, came in dead last on the magazine's courtesy index, a ranking that has triggered accusations of cultural insensitivity and maybe just a bit of hand-wringing in India's biggest, richest, brashest and most image-conscious city.

Writers and commentators immediately sprang to Mumbai's defense, like a tigress protecting her cub. "Total Bunkus!" scoffed a headline in the newsweekly Outlook. Bollywood stars and other indignant residents lined up to proclaim their love of Mumbai, praise its people and pour scorn on the editors of a middlebrow American publication based in a city named, of all things, Pleasantville.

Now, amid moving stories of courage and cooperation in the aftermath of this month's horrific railway bombings -- an attack that killed as many as 200 people and wounded hundreds -- many Mumbaikars feel that they have more than proved themselves undeserving of such a denigrating title as World's Rudest City.

Rather, they say, Mumbai's true character shone through in how people rushed to help victims long before ambulances arrived, in how destitute women in the slums handed over their saris to use in treating the wounded, and in how blood banks had to turn away donors because they reached capacity so quickly.

Reader's Digest dispatched reporters to the biggest cities of more than 30 nations. The covert courtesy inspectors conducted spot-checks to see whether residents held doors open for others, salespeople thanked their customers and bystanders helped someone who dropped a folder full of papers in a busy place.

The magazine acknowledged that the survey was not a "rigorous scientific study, but we believe it is a reasonable real-world test of good manners around the globe."

Mumbai scored a paltry 32% on the politeness meter, below cities such as Moscow, Seoul and Bucharest. On the other end of the scale, the cities with some of the best-mannered people included Zurich, Berlin and Toronto.

But perhaps most galling to Mumbaikars, aside from finishing last, was discovering who came in first.

"To rub salt into the wound, the survey rates New York -- about which it is said it has always been going to hell but somehow has never gotten there -- as the world's most polite city," a disbelieving columnist, Chidanand Rajghatta, wrote in the Times of India.

The poll results touched an especially raw nerve because Mumbai represents India's best shot at boasting a world-class city.

Movers and shakers here desperately want to establish their city as a leading center of finance, fashion and fun, worthy of mention in the same breath as London or Paris (which tied for 15th in the survey).

Critics of the magazine's courtesy barometer note that matters of etiquette are culturally determined. What passes for ill-breeding in some places may not be regarded as such in others.

"Just saying 'Pass the salt' without adding 'please' followed by 'thank you' is unacceptable in the West, but most Indians express appreciation with a change of tone while asking," Rajghatta wrote. Likewise, "in many Indian homes ... it is considered good manners -- and good hygiene -- to remove one's footwear before entering the house, something Westerners may not be attuned to doing."

What some visitors mistake for rudeness in Mumbai is simply the no-nonsense practicality of a city in a hurry to get somewhere, said Amar Kotekar, 25.

"It's completely fast living.... Time doesn't stop here," said Kotekar, who works for an information technology firm. "On average, Mumbai people are good, friendly and supportive."

Starry-eyed newcomers from across the subcontinent flock to India's "maximum city" to fulfill their dreams.

Parasher Baruah arrived here two years ago to make his name as a cinematographer and found a city willing to let people reinvent themselves, to live and let live, and to lend a hand when it really counted.

"That's what I love about this place. People are indifferent. This could be interpreted as rude," said Baruah, 28, who is from the northeast state of Assam. "They may not say thank you, but I don't give a damn about that. Maybe after a few years I won't thank anyone either. But maybe tomorrow if I face an accident, people will come up and help."

After the recent terrorist attack, which struck a key commuter rail line during the evening rush hour, observers repeatedly cited the "spirit of Mumbai" to explain residents' solidarity and resilience in the face of tragedy.

But there were dissenting voices. Some commented that high attendance at work the next day could be as much a sign of callousness as of courage. Still, few here say they would want to live anywhere else in India. Many prefer to look on the bright side, including Mohan Sivanand, editor of the Indian edition of Reader's Digest.

Sure, only 19 Mumbaikars out of 60 passed the courtesy tests set by the magazine.

But "if that 19 out of 60 represents 32% of Mumbai's estimated 14 million people," Sivanand wrote, "we could assume that there are still over 4.5 million kind hearts in the city."

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