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Monday, July 30, 2007

Respect: A Neglected Virtue

Respect is an individual’s voluntary or involuntary expression of real or forced consideration for a person, institution or a situation. In this, I find Eldridge Cleaver’s definition “Respect commands itself and it can neither be given nor withheld when it is due” constricting.

My friend Mehboob gave a surprise anniversary party for his wife. He made all the arrangements covertly, booked a place in Markham and informed all the guests.

Farah had no inkling. Just three hours before the party he called and asked if I could possibly pick up a Mrs. D visiting Toronto and bring her to the party.

I did some mental calculations and figured if I leave my home 30 minutes earlier than planned I could pick up the lady from the Mt. Pleasant address he gave me and make it to the restaurant in time. I took down Mrs. D's number and called her to verify the address and also mentioned the time I would pick her up.

I was at her doorstep at the appointed time. The person who answered the door bell told me she is in the bathroom.

This upset me somewhat.

I computed the driving time and wondered if we would be able to make it to the restaurant in time before Farah and Mehboob made their entrance. I declined the offer to go in and wait in the living room even though the temperature outside was below freezing.

About fifteen minutes later a diminutive lady clad in a saree and draped in a shawl emerged. I just opened the rear passenger door from inside and made no effort at any conversation. She exchanged some words with M.

I heard her mention that she was a teacher. She also named a school. My school! My ears pricked, and for the first time I looked in the rear mirror at her face.

I pulled over, turned back and said ‘Miss M!’ It was now her turn to be surprised.

At the restaurant I found a parking spot, jumped out of my seat, rushed to her side, opened her door, helped her get out and escorted her reverentially into the restaurant, completely forgetting about M.

From being upset and showing minimal respect I showered respect and attention all evening long.

Back to respect.

Respect has social paradigms and we cannot expect every individual to express it in the same manner. The forms and expression may differ but the intent overshadows it.

In South Asia, we genuinely respect elders and, family members and less genuinely offices, institutions and those below us on the economic or class totem pole.

In an interact Amrita wrote: Not only do we not have any respect for the law but we have precious little for the keepers as well.

(Yes Ams: that is the catalyst for this:))

I do not understand this South Asian dichotomy. We show scant respect for the law enforcement personnel in our home countries. Yet, when we find ourselves abroad, we instantly begin to respect them.

Is it because subconsciously we have been ingrained to see the policewalas as an extension of the Raj? Do we still perceive them as the Indian arm of the white man, doing their dirty work? Have we transferred our disdain for the Raj to our present governments? Is that why we perceive the policemen abroad as officers carrying out their law enforcement duties and grant them more respect?

Or is it because we consider our policemen lowly paid scum forever looking for bribes?

It may also have deeper roots.

We have not developed a genuine and abiding respect for our national institutions. And this lack of respect surfaces in our dealings with state functionaries. Yes, governments are prone to bungling issues and corruption ridden and do not treat ordinary citizens with respect, you may say.

But is (our) respect conditional and so arbitrary?

Laurence Sterne said: ”Respect for ourselves guides our morals; respect for others guides our manners.”

For me respect, like politeness costs nothing but perhaps a seat on a crowded bus. It is a great enabler. It is so easy to give respect to others and get it back in return. Like in smiling. OK, that was plug. Wonder if it will get past the editor.


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