In some countries, queuing is a national hobby. In others, it’s a cardinal sin. There are people who don’t care about queues either way, but having lived in countries that represent both these extremes, and can say without hesitation that I vastly prefer the former situation to the latter. Singapore is a great example of a place where forming queues comes as easily to people as walking. Whether it’s grabbing a cup of coffee at Starbucks, withdrawing money at an ATM or entering a tourist site, orderly queues pop up quickly and effortlessly. There’s no jostling, shoving, yelling or harassing. People wait to get what they want, and they give importance to the people around them. Cutting a queue is a serious offence, and you can be assured of many dirty looks if you do it, probably accompanied by some brave soul telling you off.
India, however, is the land of chaos. Why queue when you can just push and shove your way to the front? You are most important, therefore you deserve to be the first, the others be damned, even if they got there before you. Even if a queue does form by some miracle, it will mutate and disintegrate before you can say, “Oh, thank goodness”. A single file will somehow become two parallel lines, then another queue will spring up from the opposite side and before long, everything will be one nebulous mass and you’ll be left standing in the dust.
Before being accepted into university in Singapore, I spent a month or so at a college in Mumbai. The daily commute to and from campus by train easily makes its way into the worst travel experiences of my life. In Mumbai, every time you take the local trains or buses at peak hour, you are risking your life. You don’t board or alight these vehicles – you get pushed in or out by the crowd. You glue yourself to the person in front of you and just let yourself get moved around. I’ve been in crowds of similar sizes in Singapore’s MRT and bus stations, and never experienced that sort of life-threatening jostling. It’s not so much about the number of people as it is about the mentality. Even a crowd of five people can get ugly in India, because people just do not consider others as living, breathing human beings.
The day I got my acceptance letter to Singapore and realised I would no longer have to take the local trains was one of the happiest of my life. In Singapore, I learnt that it is possible to take public transport without worrying about making it back home in one piece, that not all people are averse to waiting an extra 2 minutes for something, that it is possible to move through a crowd without ever making contact with another person. It was bliss. There were other Indians in my cohort for whom the order and routine of life in Singapore got to be a little too much, people who longed for the chaos and unpredictability of India, but I never once felt that way.
It’s not just about orderliness, you see. I’ve never been a particularly confrontational type of person. I avoid conflicts as much as possible, and am not likely to raise my voice or create a scene even if I’m being treated badly. The most I can usually manage is an indignant expression, and possibly a sarcastic “Excuse me?!” if I’m feeling particularly snotty. And that works fine for me in Singapore, because bad behaviour is not really a huge problem. However, it’s a big disadvantage in India. Here, nothing works without confrontation. Nothing gets done without an argument. The nice, mild customer invariably gets relegated to the back. The queue-cutter not only gets away with it, but sets an example for 3 or 4 more ambitious people. People don’t respond to polite, courteous behaviour because… well, I don’t know why, but they don’t.
I’ve been back in India for a few months, now, and I still can’t bring myself to adopt the Indian way of going about things. I refuse. I will not push to the front of a crowd so I can be first-in-line to receive something, but I will not budge for a shover, either. I will not raise my voice at any service-provider, even if that means I will take twice as long to get my work done. Instead, I will leave (negative) feedback, even if I run the risk of it never being seen.
I know, I know. “When in Rome, do as Romans do.” Well, screw that. I’ll do as I do, because there’s nothing wrong with being polite or courteous or behaving like a decent human being. We can never have too many of those types of people in the world.
I will win the world with aggressive politeness, and if need be, by forming an orderly queue of one.